Category Archives: Norfolk
The Holy Well in the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham – Fr Martin Warner. Source New Series No 4 Spring 1995:
We continue our series of articles on living cults at particular British holy wells with the following account of the Well of Our Lady of Walsingham, in Norfolk. It is written by Fr Martin Warner, the Administrator of the Anglican shrine of Walsingham. Those unfamiliar with the history of the Walsingham shrine are recommended to read J. C. Dickinson, The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Cambridge 1956. The original medieval well, in the grounds of the ruined priory, and the holy well now enclosed within the modern pilgrimage church, are both described by Janet and Colin Bord, Sacred Wates Paladin (London) 1986 pp 199-201. The Bords note that ‘this newly restored holy well can safely claim to be the most active holy well in England. Probably Britain.’
In the Spring/Summer 1929 edition of Our Lady’s Mirror, a quarterly paper for the newly formed Society of Our Lady of Walsingham, an article by G.S. Dunbar on holy wells was published, listing a number of sanctuaries linked with Holy Wells and Springs. Making reference to the already famous use of water at Lourdes and the miracles that had been recorded there, Dunbar continued, ‘such miracles were worked in the past at Glastonbury and Walsingham, to mention two places amongst very many, and at Walsingham, to mention two still survive, and pilgrimages are being resumed, while sufferers resorting there after Confession and Holy Communion, use the water, invoking our Lady of Walsingham, and receive healing.’
A short time later, during the excavations for building the new shrine in 1931, a well was discovered and incorporated into the pilgrimage church. A photograph published in the Mirror in 1934 shows the proximity of the well to the Holy House which can be seen rising in new brickwork behind it. The discovery was part of the evidence which encouraged Fr Patten, the restorer of the Shrine, to believe that the site on which he was building had been the location of the original Holy House. Other foundations discovered between 1931 and 1937 convinced him that this was likely to be so.
The story of the origins of the shrine at Walsingham tells us that when the Lady of the Manor, Richeldis, had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she was taken in the spirit to Nazareth, shown the house in which the Holy Family had lived and told to build a replica of that house in her own land. The sign for where thus ‘casa sancta’ should be built was the eruption of a spring of water, and so the well has always been a part of the Walsingham cult, witnessed to by the well (more modern and more akin to a pond) in the ground of the ruined Priory, spoken of by Dunbar in his article and used by pilgrims prior to the restoration of the Shrine church in 1931.
Today the well in the shrine is an important part of our identity. It stands as a sign of the continuity of the new and old, witnessing the use of water to indicate hallowed ground and the presence of God in a particular way. More universally, the well points also to the centrality of baptism, the Sacrament by which Christians participate in the life and death of Jesús, within his body, the church. In this way the power of the incarnation is experienced as the source of all healing and all miracles.
To describe fully the significance of the well in the life of the Shrine today, it may be useful to look first at what happens when pilgrims come to be sprinkled, and then at three different types of pilgrim for whom this service can be of particular importance.
First of all, the service of Sprinkling. This is an informal service which takes place at 2.30 pm, each afternoon from Easter to the end of October and every weekend throughout the year. People gather in the main body of the Church for an introductory talk. After an opportunity to reflect on their sum of human suffering and our universal need for healing, there is a simple recognition of sin, brokenness and pain, and prayer for reconciliation. Going then to the well, the water is received in three ways. First, a sip to drink then used for making the sign of the cross on the forehead, and finally poured out into cupped hands to splash some part of the body in need of healing, or simply as a gesture of refreshment or cleansing. Those who have been sprinkled then make their way into the Holy House for final prayers and a blessing.
For Christians this can be a powerful and moving rite. A source of healing and a symbol in action of the movement from death to life. But it also speaks eloquently of another movement, that of all Christians towards unity and healing of past divisions. For those who experience sprinkling at the well, the Anglican identity of the Shrine is not of paramount significance. Walsingham is holy ground, to which Christians of all traditions (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Reformed) have various points of access, each which focus on baptism, helping pilgrims of different traditions to recognise what we share in allegiance to Jesus Christ, the child of Mary. The rite gives a structure for Christians to pray and worship together in an activity which unlike the eucharist, does not raise issues of denominational boundary.
Many of those who visit Walsingham and come to the well are from other religious traditions. A number of Asian families are often to be seen at the rite of sprinkling, some of them Christian, but some of them not. For these pilgrims water has a special religious significance with which they easily seem able to identify.
As an expression of the sacred, the River Ganges holds a powerful place in the religious imagination and landscape of India. Washing is a natural religious ceremony for many, and in the Islamic tradition Mary has a significant place of respect. Thus the well open up a dialogue with people of other faiths, recognising that in the ritual association with it there is an expression of some sacred awareness germane to human identity.
During the Summer months many holiday makers stumble across the Shrine and its well and attend, almost by accident, the rite of sprinkling. What their impressions are and how they interpret the symbolism is not always clear. But again, some relationships is often awakened with those whose faith is inarticulate, but whose search is real. This can sometimes be expressed by tears which indicate a hurt in need of healing. Sometimes it can be a sign of the strengthening of family bonds, hint at a sense of life as a precious gift and graciousness of its creator. For those who feel such stirrings, to crowd with others, into the dimly -lit Holy House after being sprinkled , witnessing the glow and candlelight, us to come as near as one night to siftinging holiness and jostling with angels. The waters of this well go deep indeed.
In this article to celebrate 10 years of blogging I am selecting 10 of the best sites I have discovered and detailed since I had begun blogging on the topic
The Monk’s Well, Southam – Nothing can prepare you for what I could describe the most unusual of all holy wells. Hidden deep in the landscape and under a nondescript metal cover a deep shaft of squared stone plunges deep into the ground to a small well chamber below.
‘St Helen’s Well’, my house! I had to include this one as it is a possible holy well under my own house. Read how I discovered the spring and how the name of the house is suggestive of an ancient and lost St Helen’s Well
St. Anne’s Well, Brough. Often a name of a ‘unknown’ well on a map leads the explorer to discover a boggy hole overgrown and difficult to image its importance. Here a few miles out of Buxton and in the shadow of a Roman fort is a well which appears have been missed by many researchers but well built and likely to be very significant,
Lady’s Well, Mansfield. This time a site which all authorities had recorded had been lost for good and attempts by ‘English heritage’ failed to find it. A bit of local field work and contacting local people and low and behold one can find the best preserved Nottinghamshire holy well…hopefully news of a residential development on the site will not result in its final demise!
Lady’s Well, Wombourne. In this case a site which is well recorded but appeared to have disappeared off maps and thus thought to have gone. A bit of looking at older maps and field work revealed not only a magically placed site but a remarkable example of a natural spring carefully improved by past generations to create sometime quite evocative.
St Peter’s Well, Peterchurch. A slightly different affair this one. When I first visited in the 1990s it was a forlorn site with the bath filled in with concrete and all that could be seen was the head through which the water once flowed (and had been tanked). Roll forward 30 odd years and community action had restored the site wonderfully back to what it first looked like – a bit of a triumph.
Holiwell, Odell. Bedfordshire is a county not fully explored by holy well researchers and one I am slowly working through. This site again I had found an old photo and worked out its location as a likely place. Expecting to be wrong or find the site gone I was amazed to find it almost exactly as it was in the photo…well almost.
St Mary’s Well, Rhuddlan. I cannot claim to have discovered this as its quite prominent at the front of the stately house which is Bodrhyddan Hall but I didnt expect to find such a splendid building over the spring.
St Chad’s Well, Brettenham. It is probably not a St Chad’s well not an estate spring made into a folly holy well. Nevertheless a fascinating site.
St Christopher’s Well, Denton. Again another grotto and is an overgrown wilderness that appeared to lay unvisited for many years…it still had old pre decimal coins in it.
A possibly un-investigated sub-genre associated with holy wells and varied water bodies are the coach and horse phantom. The phenomena is wide spread. And in lieu of a longer elaboration I thought I’d introduce some examples here and please feel free to add other examples in the comments. The furthest south one I have found is association with the Trent Barrow Spring, in Dorset Marianne Daccombe in her 1935 Dorset Up Along and Down Along states:
“One dark and stormy night a coach, horses, driver and passengers plunged into this pit and disappeared, leaving no trace behind. But passers-by along the road may still hear, in stormy weather, the sound of galloping horses and wailing voices borne by them on the wind”.
However, the majority appear to be in the eastern side of England which is not surprising as these were and in some cases are boggy, desolate marshland areas which clearly were treacherous in olden times.
In Lincolnshire, the Brant Broughton Quakers (1977) note a site in their history of the village. This was found on the corner near the allotments on Clay road was a deep pond called Holy well pond or All well or Allwells. They note that
it was haunted by a coach and horses which plunged into its waters. I was informed by Mrs Lyon, the church warden that the pond was filled in at least before the writing of the above book.
In Lincolnshire, most noted site is Madam’s Well or Ma’am’s Well. Wild (1901) notes that this was a blow hole which Charles Hope’s 1893 Legendary lore of Holy wells describes as a deep circular pit, the water of which rises to the level of the surface, but never overflows and such it is considered bottomless by the superstitious. Rev John Wild’s 1901 book on Tetney states that they were connected to the Antipodes, and relates the story which gave the site its name:
“In one of these ponds a legend relates how a great lady together with her coach and four was swallowed bodily and never seen again. It is yet called Madam’s blowhole”
Wild (1901) also tells how:
“a dark object was seen which was found to be a man’s hat…when the man was retrieved belonging to it….my horse and gig are down below.”
Norfolk has the greatest amount. Near Thetford a coach and four went off the road and all the occupants were drowned in Balor’s Pit on Caddor’s Hill, which they now haunt. On the right-hand side of the road from Thetford, just before reaching Swaffham, is a place called Bride’s Pit, after a fathomless pool once to be seen there. The name was actually a corruption of Bird’s Pit, but tradition says that a couple returning home from their wedding in a horse drawn coach plunged into the pond one dark night, and the bride was drowned. An alternative origin is that it may be a memory of the Celtic Goddess, Brede or the early saint St Bride.
The picturesquely named Lily Pit was found on the main road from Gorleston to Beccles (A143), hides a more ominous tradition, that it was haunted by a phantom. The story states that at midnight a phantom pony and trap used to thunder along the road and disappear into the water. What this phantom is confusingly differs! One tradition states the phantom was a mail-coach missed the road one night and careered into the pit, vanishing forever. This may be a man named James Keable who lost in the fog fell into the pool in 1888 his body never being recovered. Or a farm-hand eloped with his master’s daughter, who fell into the pool and drowned. He so racked with guilt later hung himself on a nearby tree. This may be the a man from Gorleston who went mad after his only daughter was lost in the pool, and so hung himself from an oak tree which stood there into the 1930s. There is an account in this Youtube video.
When doing field work for holy wells you can never know what you might find. A boggy hole surrounded by nettles or a fantastic romantick folly! Sadly more often it is the former as regular readers of this blog could attest. However,
There is said to be a little south of the old church is according to Francis Blomefield in his 1805 An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk :
‘a curious spring called Holy or Ladyes Well’
No such name appears on the first series OS but a well is marked to the south-east and this would be the same as that which is marked on the early 17th century map as Ladyeswell. From the early fourteenth century the priory was usually referred to as St. Mary ad fontes, St. Mary de fontibus or St. Mary at the Welle. The site lies in the south-eastern corner of the churchyard area, around 50m south east of the church.
When I first looked for the site I was thwarted by the gate and barbed wire. My sources suggested that there was a spring beside the lake and old maps did show this but I assumed it had been absorbed by the pond. Returning on a fine spring day I realised that the fence and barbed wire had a gap and a small gate which opened and a path lead towards the trees where the lack of foliage indicated some sort of well structure.
It consists of an approximately semi-circular basin, lined with stone blocks, with a shelf or sitting area, although the water filled the whole area. Three steps go down into the water. Above this is a probably 19th century wellhead on its east side, consisting of a round headed wall with a central niche which constructed of some reused architectural fragments and stone blocks some laying on the bench surrounding the spring. These coming from the ruined church above which is Saxon in date. Above the niche is a piece of relief carving. This would appear to be the same that Michael Burgess in his 1988 Holy Wells and Ancient Crosses of Norfolk and Suffolk notes as in West Newton called Pilgrim’s Well, which tradition suggests was used by pilgrims on the way to Walsingham. The field contained the remains of a deserted village the street plan of which apparently can still be seen in the snow
A connection with a most likely Marian well cult can be found at the Augustinian priory of St. Mary at Flitcham with Appleton. From the early fourteenth century the priory was usually referred to as St. Mary ad fontes, St. Mary de fontibus or St. Mary at the Welle.
Who built it?
William White, History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk (1845) may provide one suggestion a Rev. W. Allen, of Narborough, who he records ‘who performs divine service in the ruins once a year.’ With such an interest in continuing services in the ruined church it would suggest that he would have had an interest in restoring the local holy well if only to provide clean water for those services. Sadly nothing can be found to validate this claim but it makes a likely person. Landowners would have to be involved and it is known that AJ Humbert was interested in improving the area. Again nothing can be located to suggest so. As Bromefield would perhaps only have heard of extant and interesting wells – ie not boggy holes – it suggests that there was some structure at the time of his work.
The final solution is a possibly obvious one is King Edward VII. One of his friends wrote after his death in 1910:
“Up to the last year of his life he was continually improving his domain, repairing churches, spending money on the place in one way or another.”
Could the monarch have improved the spring? Sadly, the local parish council and Sandringham estate appear to have drawn a blank when I enquired.
However, the enigmatic origins lend itself to this little known and undoubtedly best of the county’s holy wells.
The sacred spring of England’s first patron saint – searching for St Edmund’s Springs in East Anglia (part one): Old Hunstanton, Norfolk
“In Catholic times the devout clients of St. Edmund flocked to their crystal waters, as pilgrims journeyed to St. Winifred’s Well on the western side of the isle. Now, however, the holy wells of Hunstanton belong to the forgotten past. Farmers, indeed, for miles round send their water-carts to be filled at them, and one of the springs supplies the new town with its sparkling water ; but, though marvelous cures are said to be wrought at them, few recognise their miraculous power, and only now and then does a solitary pilgrim linger over the spot, and recall to memory the stranger prince who knelt there to pray for his country.”
James MacKinlay (1893) Saint Edmund King and Martyr: A History of His Life and Times with an Account of the Translation of His Incorrupt Body, Etc. From Original Mss
Who was St. Edmund
Despite being England’s first patron saint Edmund is only known only from two Saxon period sources: the Anglo Saxon Chronicle circa 877 – 899 and the minting of a commemoration coin from 890.The later suggests a figure of considerable importance but beyond of this, St Edmund’s life is full of miracles and a well-known martyrdom were written long after his death.
As a King of East Anglia he was perhaps less well-known to his people as Redwald, buried in Sutton Hoo in the mid 600s, by the late 800s, the King had been overtaken in importance by Mercia and Northumbria, but his standing up to and final death at the hands of the Vikings were an important part of the cultural mythos of the Saxon resistance perhaps. Not unsurprisingly for an early Kingly Saxon saint he has sacred springs associated with him.
The legend of St Edmund’s return
The first of the noted springs arose at Hunstanton a town proud of its St Edmund association. It is here that legend tells he arrived from Nuremberg, to claim the throne being nominated as the successor of Offa, as noted Allen Mawer, (1911). In his Edmund King of East Anglia is possibly apocryphal This note withstanding John Lydgate in his Life of Sts. Edmund and Fremund, 1434 (translated by Horstmann (1881) says that on a safe arrival on dry land of East Anglia:
“In tokne that god herde his praier, Vpon the soil, sondy, hard and drie, Ther sprong bi miracle fyue wellis clier, That been of uertu, helthe and remedie Ageyn ful many straunge malladie.”
Geoffrey of Fountains Abbey too states in the The Youth of St Edmund how when Edmund and his companions returned to East Anglia from exile, they landed about a bowshot from the promontory of Maydenebure near Hunstanton. Here the prince knelt and prayed for his country at a spot afterwards distinguished for its fertility:
“and at the very place where he rose up from prayer, and mounted his horse, twelve sparkling springs broke out from the ground. They still run today, a wonder to all who see them, and then join together to trickle with a pleasant chuckling murmur into the salt sea. Many sufferers from disease have washed themselves with these waters and recovered their health. When the water is taken for the benefit of people living further away, if they are ill or for any other reason, it retains its healing power. And it so happened that, when St Edmund had won his crown, he liked this place best of all for its memories, and had a royal palace built on the rising ground near these springs”.
Geoffrey had lived at Thetford, compared to other historians not that far from Hunstanton, so he may well have learnt this story from tradition rather than from books.
Will the correct number of springs reveal themselves?
White (1845) in his directory of Norfolk records that:
“A well in the parish also bears the name of the name of the Royal martyr; but is sometimes called the Seven Springs”.
The number of springs varies according MacKinlay (1893) Saint Edmund King and Martyr: A History of His Life and Times with an Account of the Translation of His Incorrupt Body, Etc. From Original Mss who reports that the Gaufridus says twelve springs; Lydgate says five; Capgrave only states that “a fountain sprang up, curing many infirmities”.
The name the Seven Springs appears to have been a later name and of course seven springs are not uncommon across the British isles and have a cult significance. James MacKinlay (1893) states that Gaufridus:
“These springs, to this our own day excite the admiration of the beholder, flowing as they do with a continuous sweet and cheering murmur to the sea. Many sick wash in these fountains and are restored to their former health, and pilgrims carry the healing water to remote parts for the infirm and others to drink.”
Will the location of the springs please reveal themselves?
The site of these springs is debatable. The obvious location is the chapel near the lighthouse but if they were there there is no sign or perhaps they have now fallen into the sea. One possibly location is by the Old Church. This is a very plausible location and indeed there is a large duckpond in the location, another is a boggy woodland called the pools which may also be the source.
However, the most likely is that by the old Waterworks. Here the springs are still present in the garden of what is now a private dwelling in Old Hunstanton. The spring’s water was pumped to the water tower (now demolished) at Lincoln Street and was the town’s principle source.
The springs fill a considerable pool which flow out as a stream although a recent fence makes it nigh impossible to view them. This would fit with MacKinlay (1893) who notes that:
“St. Edmund’s springs are situate about a quarter of a mile from the ancient and beautiful church of St. Mary in Old Hunstanton.”
It would be nice to have some signage to this, perhaps historically (if he did indeed land here) the most important of Hunstanton’s relics after the chapel.
Here is potentially a little known holy well of note. It is absent from Charles Hope’s pioneering 1893 work Legendary Lore of Holy Wells nor did it fall into the net of Jeremy Harte’s 2008 Holy Wells sourcebook! Its exact history and provenance is under question but if genuine it is a survival of that early time of Christianisation in East Anglia. The possible site I rediscovered during research for my forthcoming book on Norfolk holy and healing wells…but as always things are not always as clear cut as that!
One possible site?
However there is debate whether this or another well called the Roman Well is the site. That itself is of questionable age, Dahl in his 1913, The Roman Camp and the Irish Saint at Burgh Castle notes:
“There is a public path at the foot of ‘The Hanger’ which leads to a small piece of ground, still belonging to the glebe, but which has been thrown open to the public, and which is termed in some of the old maps ‘The Roman Well,’ but this is a mere tradition and cannot be accepted as having any foundation of truth. There is undoubtedly a spring of water here, but it is certainly not Roman.”
Of this site local tradition states that the well was restored by Canon Venables in 1893 who is said to have discovered a sump hole, lined it with a wall of flints set into a bank and two upright stones recording the date of April 9th 1893 or 1803. Above the well are biblical verses which read:
“The Lord is my shepherd, he leadeth me beside still waters, He restereth my soul”
By 1928 although the site was already overgrown it remained visible until the 1950s but research in the 1980s failed to find any trace. Scott (1902) appears to suggest that the Roman well at the foot of the cliffs is the said site marked on the 1883 OS. However, this would be at odds with the report by Saul (2007) in their portrait of the village in the 1950s which states that the well is firmly in the churchyard. It is possible that there of course two wells and they have become confused. The question being of course why would Canon Venables restore a well which was not a holy one (but perhaps he did also restore that in the churchyard) and why does Dahl (1913) not mention the churchyard site?
Who was St Fursey?
St. Fursey was an Irish missionary saint who had built a monastery at Burgh and as far as I am aware this is the only dedication to him in the country.
Another possible site?
The well above appears lost but the churchyard well, and therefore the more likely origin well survives albeit nearly lost under a considerable amount of ivy and surrounded by nettles in a forgotten section of the churchyard is St. Fursey’s Well (TG 476 049). The site is not recorded by any authorities that I can find.
Although dry and looking forlorn, St. Fursey’s Well can be easily found. It is a six foot brick built arch structure, two feet deep and much covered with ivy. The brick is plastered over although parts of this plaster are crumbling due to the action of the ivy. It resembles many small well chapels covering wells in Cornwall and is not seen elsewhere in the county and probably dates from the 1800s. Hopefully it can be restored with a flow – if there ever was one that is – such is the confusion over this site.
Taken from and adapted from the forthcoming R. B. Parish Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk
Back in the mid 90s when I started seeking out holy wells, I came across reference to a site just outside of Thetford. I’d planed to visit the site and found it to be one of the most curious in the county. It is marked on the first series of the OS map in Gothic writing but was it that old?
A substantial site is located in Shadwell Park called St. Chad’s Well (TL 933 830). However, despite the name I can find no history or traditions about it, the first author to refer to the well is Bryant (1901) who states it is marked on an ancient map but as I note below I have been unable to substantiate this. Was it an ancient well?
Icewell, holy well or folly?
The well is enclosed is a circular dome of flint and mortar with a passage entrance facing west. The structure is supported by a stone pillar. The structure is not dissimilar to an ice-well which indeed it has been claimed it was but no-one would build an ice-well with a spring in it. A medieval fabric claim was made, but is of probable 19th Century date and is an estate folly; a grottification of a simple spring, utilising old stone work. This spring arises from the hillside and enters into a basin kerbed in stone through a hole in the flint wall of the structure. Above this is an arched recess. The water is channelled into a narrow gutter to exit through the north wall. The concrete floor of the chamber is below ground level reached by five stairs in the passageway. There are two lighting niches in the walls at the east and the southwest. Six stone blocks are arranged to form seats. Below the arch of the spring of the arch of the domed roof are six brackets which possibly served as candle stands.
St Chad or Boundary spring?
Unlikely although St Cedd his brother evangelised East Anglia, Chad wells are very common in the region. This is because they arise from the Old English Chaud meaning cold and thus cold spring! In this case it is apparent that the name may well be a back-derivation as its location on East Hall and Gonville Manors boundary suggests name derives from O.E scead for ‘boundary’ this is emphasised by the name of the estate Shadwell – sceadwell! Indeed the estate Shadwell Court is only first mentioned in White (1845) as the house was built in the 1830s with associated statues. Historic England records:
“Robert Buxton acquired the manor of Rushworth in Shadwell during the C16, initially holding a lease from the fourth Duke of Norfolk. In c 1715 John Buxton, amateur architect of Channonz Hall in Tibenham, began to rebuild what he called Shadwell Lodge and to lay out the grounds. The main features however of the design which survives today (1999), including the layout of the plantations and the creation of the lake, are the work of his son, also John, between the 1740s and 1760s and these are recorded on William Faden’s map of the county dated 1797. “
This suggests the well was a folly capitalising on the spring name using the carved stonework which may have originally been part of Thetford Priory, giving it a rustic religious feel. However this does not mean that the well was not of significance. Boundaries often incorporated springs as sites of note, or as disputed sites and having them on boundaries allowed equal access. As many Parish boundaries date from Angl0-Saxon periods it is possible that the well had a significant position in the settlement. There is evidence of an ancient settlement here with flint flakes and blades from the Neolithic and Bronze Age were found around the well and Roman funeral urns and Saxon tumuli in the park. Furthermore the well is also located close to Peddar’s Way, suggesting pilgrim use perhaps. So was it a Holy well as noted 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales:
“SHADWELL……It takes its name from a spring called St. Chad’s well, formerly much frequented by pilgrims.”
This begs the question is this just antiquarian fancy or are we missing some records of its history? Was it frequented by those on the way to Walsingham…if so its forgotten by them now.
Only a few feet from the hurtling sound of the train is a large spring head. This is St. Helen’s Spring or Tevantwell. (TL 841 874) still exists although as Manning (1993) in there work on Taking the Waters in Norfolk notes the original site may have been displaced by the construction of the railway nearby. Thomas Martin (1779) in his History of Thetford notes that:
“St Helens was a parish church in the time of the Confessor…It stood on a hill two miles out of the town on the Santon road. At the foot of the hill is a spring commonly called Holywell or Tevant-well, corruptly for St Helen’s-well.”
W. G. Clarke (1925) in Breckland wilds states that:
“It is said that a man who was working in the harvest field suffered from extreme heat and expressed his intention of going to St. Helen’s Well to get some water to drink. His companions endeavoured to dissuade him from drinking icy-cold water in his heated condition, but he was obstinate, went to the spring and drank till he died. His spirit thereupon haunted the pit in which the spring was situated.”
Leigh Hunt (1870) in his The capital of the ancient kingdom of East Anglia reports finding foundations of this building, and these may still be those still exist and are described by Manning (1993). According to Manning (1993):
“six or seven springs emerge in the floor of the quarry… the building of the railway cut through the original St Helen’s Well and the present springs represent a post-railway emergence”.
She states that there are signs of a structure consisting of a grey brick bridge spanning the conduit arch and two further arches have been infilled at either side of the conduit, but this do not appear to be visible now and perhaps have become overgrown.
The spring does arise from stonework although it is difficult to judge whether these are natural or have had the touch of human hand.
A lost church
The first mention the church is the Domesday Book which notes:
“one church of St Helen with one ploughland”.
The next mention is that there was a fair there mentioned in a roll of fair belonging to the Borough of Thetford, this was also recorded in 1347 as a market or fair at Santon. However, by the time of the 1368 Archdeacon’s visitation it was absent from this very comprehensive survey. This suggests that the church was gone by then. Various excavations have revealed the remains of an apsidal church and that it incorporated Roman works into it, mainly tiles in its east end and north wall foundations. But was there a village? It appears not and so you may ask why was it here? The answer is quite clear it was here to capitalise on the spring, but what is surprising is that no adoption is apparent by the church perhaps this indicates that the church had indeed gone by the time of the real adoption of such springs by the church with appropriate masonary…it is difficult to tell.
An ancient site
Examples of Palaeolithic flint tools have been found in the gravels at St Helen’s Pit. As at other sites in the Little Ouse valley such as Broomhill (another Trail site), these are likely to have been incorporated into the gravels after being washed off a land surface where they had been discarded, or having been drawn into them by the churning effects of frost action.Pagan site
What is clear is that this remote site has become a pagan site again, Pagan Federation of Norfolk website records:
”This is a strangely beautiful spot, which forms a point of connection between the earth and the leaves and the water of the land itself, the scars of quarrying, echoes of ancient Pagan veneration, faint traces of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, the brutal power of Victorian industrialisation and a new, Pagan appreciation of sacredness. “
“Although I have never met anyone else down there, it is obvious from the energy and from some of the items one occasionally finds, that various groups and individuals do a lot of magical work there. Wands can sometimes be respectfully cut from one of the Hazels and the water itself is, of course, very powerful and useful in a variety of magical contexts. St. Helen, or Helen of the Roads (also known as Elen of the Ways) is considered by John and Caitlín Matthews to be one of our oldest native deities. Since she is associated with travel, water from her well can be used for magic relating to physical journeys, but also to help with pathworkings and with quests to seek ancient knowledge and wisdom.”
What is interesting is that a hazel tree nearby has become a rag well. Interestingly the Pagan federation add:
“This practice, of tying rags and other offerings to trees at sacred spots, has found its way to us from our more westerly colleagues and is not one which I personally feel particularly comfortable with, mainly because so many people use items made of synthetic materials, which do not rot away like wool or linen, and end up just looking like a lot of litter desecrating the place. It is very rare in Norfolk, though and even at St. Helen’s there are only ever a few of them.)”
Indeed other than St Micheal’s Well in Longstanton outside of Cambridge and Woolpit’s Our Lady have ever had only one! It is possible as there are a number of St. Helen’s Well which are rag wells up north that someone in the know decided to start it off here. Whatever, someone had clearly thought the rag tree was an intrusion for upon a recent visit no rags were apparent being replaced by a bouquet of bright red tulips. It is indeed an unworldly site…climb down to it the trees give an eerie feel to it and even the sound of the train hurtling by cannot break the connection one can get to this peaceful place.
In the last post, we discussed the well dedicated to St, Ethelbert, in this post I shall introduce the other curious piece of local waterlore, the tale of the bell and the mermaid. Ella Mary Leather in her 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire. She relates in a story communicated by a Mr Galliers, of King Pyon and completed from other oral versions:
“In former times Marden church stood close to the river, and by some mischance one of the bells was allowed to fall into it, it was immediately sized by a mermaid who carried it to the bottom and held it there so fast that any number of horses could move it.”
She continues to state how the bell could be recovered:
“The people of the parish were told how to recover it, by wise men, according to some; others say the bell itself gave directions from the bottom of the river. A team of twelve white Free Martins heifers was to be obtained and attached to the bell with yokes of the sacred yew tree and bands of wittern or in some versions, the drivers’ goads were to be of witty or wittern mountain ash.”
Here interestingly is related a common folklore motif. The recovery by a set number of oxen, often unblemished of pattern in some way, the number twelve being a significant folklore number of course. Also interesting is the mention of yew and wittern – or mountain ash. Mountain Ash was an important plant often used in May time as adornment on houses and was held against witchcraft. Indeed, Aubrey noted
“They used when I was a boy to make pinnes for the yoakes of their oxen of them believing it had virtue to preserve them from being fore spoke. As they call it and they used the plant one by their dwelling house believing it to preserve them from witches and Evil Eyes.”
The next stage again is often told at other locations when treasure needs to be uncovered:
“The bell was to be drawn out in perfect silence it was successfully raised to the edge of the river with the mermaid inside fast asleep. In the excitement a driver, forgetting that silence was all important called out
“In spite of the Devils in hell, now well land Marden’s great bell”
This woke the mermaid, who darted back into the river, taking the bell with her ringing.”
The Mermaid replying:
“If it has not been for your wittern bands or witty goads and your yew tree lin, I’d have you twelve free martins in.”
This of course appears to indicate the power of the sacred foliage used which prevented the full effort of the mermaid.
“So Marden folks have never had their bell back from the bottom of the river to this day, and sometimes it may still be heard ringing, echoing the bells of the church. It does in a deep clear pool.”
A common story
Now this is as I have said a common folk motif. A similar story is recorded at the Callow Pit, Southwold in Norfolk about not speaking. Here an iron chest filled with gold said to lay at the bottom of the pit. Many years ago, two adventurous men determined to retrieve it. Having placed a platform of ladders across the pit they were success to insert a staff into the ring in the lid of the chest, and bore it up from the water. They then placed the staff on their shoulders and prepared to bar their trophy off. As they did so one of them exclaimed: ‘We’ve got it safe, and the devil himself can’t get it from us.’ Instantly a cloud of sulphurous steam arose and a black hand from the pool and latched onto the chest. A terrible struggle ensued and after much exhaustion, their treasure sank back down into the murky depths. All the men retained was the ring.
A closer version is told at Newington Kent, associated with the Libbet Well, the legend blames the church wardens, who decided to sell thechurch’s great bell to pay for the repair of the others. So as not to be seen they did it at night, but the Devil appeared and threw it in the well. At first they had great success at raising the bell to the surface, but the rope broke, they tried again and failed. A local witch arrived, and told them that the only way it could be raised was by drawing it up by four pure white oxen. This was done, and it was almost raised to the surface until, a local urchin, who was passing, shouted out at the top of his voice, ‘Look at the black spot behind that bull’s ear’. The rope instantly broke, and the bell was lost forever!
Rediscovery of the bell!
Now these other legends are just that legends and usually such a story ends, but this one has a postscript. Leather (1912) further records:
“In 1848 in cleaning out a pond in Marden, an ancient bronze bell was discovered . It lay at a depth of eighteen feet, beneath the accumulated mud and rubbish of centuries. The bel, which is now in the Hereford museum is rectangular in shape the plates are riveted together on each side. The clapper is lost , but there remains the loop inside from which it was suspended.”
Now of course what is unknown here is what came first, the bell’s discovery or the legend. The bell’s rediscovery would be vindication for such a legend but as Leather is the first to record it, it could be that the legend was constructed around the bell. However, I feel less sceptical about it considering how complex the legend is.
Let us first consider the bell. Leather herself introduces the idea that these were bells that the sexton or clerk took to the houses of the deceased on the day of the funeral. However, they originated as portable bells often associated with saints, indeed one in Glascwm a bell called Bangu was said to have belonged to St David,. Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In his work Wirt Sykes 1880 British Goblins it is noted that:
“Clergy were more afraid of swearing falsely by them than the gospels, because of some hidden and miraculous power with which they were gifted, and by the vengeance of the Saint to who, they were particular pleasing; their despisers and transgressors were severely punished…. Have in all probability hidden long ago by reformers on account of the superstitious beliefs attached to them.”
Now it seems likely that the bell was perhaps used to warn off the mermaid (whatever that might be) as a way of Christianizing the site and removing any pagan imaginary. Does the story recall the battle between the pre-Christian world and the Christian world? The message being in this remote region that paganism still has its grip despite the church!
What was the mermaid?
It might seem unusual to hear about a freshwater Mermaid, certainly one so far from the sea. However, she is not alone. There are mermaids in the Peak District, Lancashire and elsewhere – indeed there are more freshwater ones than sea water in England. Why? It is probable that these are folk memories of water deities which are converted to otherworldly creatures. In the case of Marden’s slightly sympathetically, in other mermaid stories she steals people and drowns them.
Was the mermaid the deity which was originally associated with St Ethelbert’s Well? It is possible although there is a long gap between a likely Celtic deity and Saxon Christian conversion, although it is possible that a Saxon deity like Nerthus could be the origin. That is of course if St Ethelbert is the original saintly dedication. His legend is so generic as stated in the earlier post, he could have easily replaced or been mistaken for a local pre-Saxon saint. Certainly Leather suggests the bell has an association with the saint:
“The Marden bell was perhaps associated with St Ethelbert ; the pond in which it was found is near the church which stands on the spot on which the body was first buried before its removal to Hereford. “
Such a bell is not a Saxon type but it is not without reason that the style continued into the Saxon period, especially in boarder country. Alternatively, the bell may be an indication of the existence of the pre-Saxon saint I muted. Certainly the discovery of the bell in a pond may indicate the true location of the village’s holy well and not the dry pit that survives in the church. Whatever the truth it is an interesting and little known story and one would welcome observations by readers.
2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.
Who is St. Walstan?
St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.
Three holy wells
In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Already I have tried to locate the first at Taverham’s and found the restored site at Costessey, now the easiest to find – that at the location of the saint’s shrine church, Bawburgh.
This is the third well of the saint in the English Life but the second in his Latin Life. In St Walstan Confessor, de sancto Walstanus confessore notes:
“The bulls went down from that place with the precious body towards the vill of Bawburgh. When they had come almost to the place where the body now lies buried they made another stop in a certain place, where the love of St. Walstan the divine piety made another spring of wonderful power against fevers and many other infirmities, which is still there today.”
The English Life adds:
“ye other ox staled; a well sprang anon next beyond ye parsonage”.
What is interesting is the use of the word, stalled which may be O.E for ‘come to a halt’ or with one l, staled meaning ‘urinated’! The later perhaps recording a more significant role for the white oxen.
The saint’s body was transferred through a special opening made in the north wall of the church and this arch can still be seen, now blocked up. His shrine was then established in the north transept of the Parish church of St Mary the Virgin, since then known as St Mary and St Walstan, as a separate chapel. The saint was canonised by the diocesan Bishop, who visited the site, with a large procession of priests, and hearing of his holiness:
“The bishop gave an ear and hearkened sore, And allowed him a Saint evermore.”
From this point on the well and especially the saint’s shrine was the goal of pilgrims, first from neighbouring villages, and then from Norwich (along Earlham Green Lane), and then after the news of its powers spread across England from farther afield. In particular farmers would bring their sick animals to the well to have them cured. In fact the well and shrine were so popular that a college of priests were established to control and administer the large numbers of pilgrims.
However, although it was apparently the shrine which was the goal, of the eleven medieval miracles associated with the saint, only two are associated with the holy well. One being that of Swanton’s son and the other of Sir Gregory Lovell. In the former, a man called Swanton had a lame son. Together they prayed to God and St Walston and bathed in the water from the Holy Well. The son recovered and ‘now goeth right up and his health hath’.
Nearby lost settlement of Algarsthorpe appears to have been given as a pitanciary to the Monks of Norwich as a result of the other miracle from the holy well. A Sir. Gregory Lovell who was cured of:
“Great sickness and great bone ache by water from St. Walstan’s Well”
According to the English Life of the saint:
“It happened by means of Walstan and God’s grace, To muse in mind upon a night, A mean make to holy Walstan in that case, For water to his well he sent as tyte, Therewith him washed and also dyte, And remedy readily should have anon, by the grace of God and holy Walston.”
Unfortunately as with most shrines the Reformation had a destructive effect, and the shrine was dismantled, its relics scattered over the fields and lost forever. Sadly his shrine lay in the north side of the church and was destroyed in the purges of Henry VIII and his relics burned. The removal of the chapel meant that the north side had no supporting side and hence a buttress had to be placed there!
Yet despite this wanton destruction, it appears St Walstan’s Well continued to be visited, and even through the Commonwealth period, superstitious farmers would visit the well collecting its healing waters for their sick animals. As Twinch (2015) astutely notes:
“The Bawburgh well is an integral part of the later medieval story but it assumed greater importance post-Reformation, after the tomb and chapel was demolished. The emphasis seems then to revert almost to the pre-1016 era of folk lore and water worship”
This has continued until recent years and even in recent times local farmers believe in its livestock curing properties. In 1928 the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological society during an excursion to Bawburgh were told by the Revd Gabriel Young of the story of a local farmer and churchwarden, who had recently died, called Mr. James Sparrow of Church Farm who had a sick mare. The mare was so inflicted with sores that he had to have her put down, at which point a farm boy asked if he could treat her with the well’s water. This is apparently he did and after 10 days of the treatment was cured. The farmer apparently put its powers down to chemical or vegetable substances, rather than miracles, although no chemical analysis has been able to identify these.
This revival in the importance of St Walstan’s Well can be traced back to the 1790s when an anonymous letter on the subject of wells and baths in the September of Gentlemen’s Magazine:
“My business has very lately obliged me to make a tour through this country, at all the market towns and even at every village I stopt at, I was informed of its wonderful efficacy in curing all disorders. The resort to this spring has been very great all this summer. I was assured by a person who was on the spot, that there were frequently 2000 people there at a time, particularly on Sunday mornings; and that the spring was frequently emptied, not so much by the quantity drank on the spot, as what was put into bottles, casks, and barrels, to be transported to the remotest parts of the county.”
As Twinch (1995) notes 2000 people is a lot to assemble around the well, and hence there is doubt in this description. However Husbenbeth (1859) wrote recording around the end of the 18th Century partly collaborating this:
“An old man died not long ago at Babur, who was known to the writer, and in his younger days kept an inn there, which was frequently by crowds of visitors to St Walstan’s Well.”
The Norwich Gazette noted that these crowds often resulted in trouble, and in 1763 it reported that: ‘much confusion ensued …..and many heads were broken in the scuffle.’
Its water was so pure that it was sold in the streets of Norwich. However religious pilgrims only begun to return en masse to the well in the 19th Century. This appeared to be the result of a number of miracles associated with the distribution of its water. The earliest recorded of these involved a Francis Bunn. In 1810 he had joining the militia, but was within five years discharged suffering from ‘incurable ulcers.’ Hearing St Walstan’s well in 1818 after moving to live at Costessey, he walked the three miles to the well to apply the water to his leg. Remarkably his wounds were healed and Husenbeth recorded that they continued to heal up to Bunn’s death in November 1856. The next miracle involved Sister St John Chrysostom, of the Hammersmith Convent. She fell ill in 1838, and was so close to death that the Mother Abbess suggested that she should seek a cure through the moss of St Walstan’s Well. However she disagreed and preferred to put her faith in the healing power of her medallion of the Virgin Mother. Incredibly it is said that as she held this medal to her stomach it was heard to say: ‘drink some water poured from the moss from St Walstan’s Well.’ Taking this as good advice she did so at once, and upon swallowing this moss exclaimed that she was cured!
In 1868, A Revd Benjamin Armstrong noted that one of his five Roman Catholic parishioners had taken some of the moss and:
“applying it to a bad sore overnight, she found it completely healed in the morning, leaving a scar, as from an old wound.”
An account in the Eastern Daily Press of 1913 dubbed it A Norfolk Lourdes and recorded the cure of a London Catholic who had been suffering from eye troubles for some time. It is reported that he saw a number of specialists and was told than the man was likely to loss his sight altogether. The apparently the man remembered the moss he had taken from the well the year before, applied it to his eye using the well’s water. The following day his eye sight was restored. The doctor pronounced him cured. He is said to be determined to join 300 other Catholics from congregations in Norwich, Costessey and Wymondham to give thanks.