Category Archives: Pilgrimage
400TH POST! The sacred springs and holy wells of the St David’s Peninsula Part One (part one) by Julie Trier Source New Series No 4 Summer 1995
To introduce my commentary on the holy wells of St Davids in Pembrokeshire (one of the three counties presently constitionlly Dyfed), I would like to highlight a passage from Francis Jones’ now well-known guide, The Holy Wells of Wales:
“There are in the district twelve holy wells, seven of which are concentrated in the immediate vicinity of St Davids, as also are most of the cromlechau. It is probable that some of these wells were there in pre-Christian days. In St David’s time, a powerful pagan family lived there. Yet it was here in the heart of the pagan camp that the missionaries settled and it was here that Dewi St David) built his church, and twelve chapels were erected in the same district. It is possible that in this remote headland, with its rugged cairns looking westward over the waves towards the setting sun, lay the sacred mysteries of our ancient pagan stock.” (Jones 1992, 25-6).
Here is an evocative acknowledgement of the roots of our holy wells, inextricably linked with the ancient cultures. It has moved me to attempt a brief history of the early peoples of this region, suggesting their relationship with water sources in terms ‘sacred mysteries of their religious beliefs and customs (Jones’).
Some reference to contemporary evidence from other areas is used, to present this apparently ‘remote headland’ and its possible water cults within a broader historical, archaeological and religious context. This will lead into the Christian era when wells took on a new status and, in many cases, their present names. Most of the prescribed ‘twelve’ will be detailed along the way, although of those visited and recorded by Major Jones, a few have unfortunately all but disappeared.
In the beginning…
To live on the St David’s peninsula is to be ever aware of the presence of water, bounded as we are by the Irish Sea to the north, west, and south. Rainfall is plentiful, creating a landscape which flows with springs, streams, and a modest river, all microcosmic echoes of the last Ice Age melt-down that carved out the valleys and ‘cwms’ 12,000 years ago.
From about 8000 BC, as the climate warmed, the Mesolithic cave-dwellers of southern Pembrokeshire began to live in open settlements on the low-lying forested and marshy land beside the shores. Much of this land was later submerged beneath the sea (tree stumps are occasionally revealed during unusual surface-shifts at local beaches) as the water level finally rose, around 5500 BC (Miles 1978, 37; Worsley 1989, 13-14). Two thousand years later, the western sea-routes became established by Neolithic colonists originally from the Near East, who arrived in their skin-covered craft by way of Atlantic Europe, bringing with them their knowledge of farming (Bowen 1972, 26, 36). Their communities were probably sited close to the abundant natural springs, life-sustaining sources of water which would have been cherished for their practical uses; and doubtless reverenced as shrines. As they lived in close contact with the natural world, these people must have appreciated the earth’s creative, nurturing, and regenerative qualities, and felt awe at its destructive potential. Water issuing from unknown depths below the ground would suggest renewal and continuity of life after death It is natural, therefore, to find many of their burial chambers – erected to commemorate prominent or prosperous families – positioned near to sacred springs. It is interesting to note that a number of traditions exist linking both well and tomb with healing ceremonies (Jones 1992, 14-17,101). Dowser Guy Underwood believed these tombs also marked ‘blind springs of exceptional importance’. He considered such sites to be ‘the esoteric “centre” of the Old Religion as well as being the actual centre of its monuments’ (Underwood 1974, 92, 39). It has also been suggested that these cromlechs or dolmens, their huge earth mounds once concealing inner chambers of stone tripod and capstone, would have stood prominently upon the landscape, acting as territorial markers (Hills 1986, 50; John 1994, 13). Many wells were also used to mark boundaries (Bord 1985, 74; Jones 1992, 55-7). Two possible local examples of well, cromlech, and boundary complexes are worth noting here,
Ffynnon Penarthur (‘Penarthur Well’: SM 751265), ‘which stood at the end of the land of Arthur Li.e. the pen – ‘head’, or ‘end’ – of Arthur), was a boundary mark of a manor at St Davids’ (Jones 1992, 5). The ‘land of Arthur’ (probably just a local chieftain, although an Arthurian legend exists in this area: Jones & Jones 1982, 123), would appear to extend from the spring westwards for two miles, to the edge of the peninsula, where a cromlech named Coetan Arthur Arthur’s Quoit’) can be seen against the sky-line on St Davids Head. The easterly boundary at ‘Arthur’s End’ (as it was actually shown on some maps), marked by the well, would seem to be naturally formed by a stream which flows through marshy ground to join the River Alun as it meanders along the valley towards St Davids, half a mile away. It is possible that a second boundary, extending into fields as a footpath (on 25″ O.S. map, 1908), intersects the first at the well-site. This may be ‘the boundary of a manor at St Davids’. It is stated that this holy well ‘had an ancient cromlech nearby which was destroyed’ (Sharkey 1994, 51). Fifteen years ago, a visiting archaeologist told the then owner of Penarthur farm that a large stone in an adjacent field appeared to be the capstone of a cromlech. This stone had been removed and the present farmer did not know its whereabouts.
A recent inspection of the well-site revealed a large flat stone of the capstone type serving as a wayside foot-bridge, in the verge opposite the spring. Today there is nothing to see of the original well-structure except for a few moss-covered boulders around a modern concrete water-tank. A hollow indentation in a large boulder – ‘a common feature of holy wells’ – had been observed previously (Sharkey 1994, 51). A small hut next to the spring houses the machinery that pumps the water uphill to Penarthur farm, a quarter-mile distant. As with so many once-sacred springs, the identity of Ffynnon Penarthur has almost been effaced. However, it was once of undoubted importance, as three ornamented stones are believed to have stood around it, placed there in the early Christian era. One of these, the inscribed ‘Gurmarc’ stone, with its unusual Alpha and Omega symbols (Laws 1888, 76, 77; Dark 1992, 19, 20; James 1981 -illustration Pl. 5) had been serving as a farm gatepost in 1856. The other two were found in hedge banks. By 1886 all had been rescued and placed in St Davids cathedral (Arch. Camb. 1856, 50-1; ib. 1886, 43-5). Together with a further cross- marked stone from the Penarthur area, they are now to be seen in the new lapidarium in St Mary’s Hall, in St Davids. The three stones are of particular interest as the complex interlacing of their designs is specifically Irish, an influence which recurs constantly in this area.
At Naw Ffynnon (‘Nine Wells ‘), two miles east of St Davids (SM 788240), another example of the well/crornlech/boundary combination can be observed. Destroyed in the last century, the cromlech stood in a field above a now ivy-covered roadside well, one of the original nine (Jones 1992, 26). A few yards away, across the main road, and spanning a rushing stream, stands an old inscribed stone indicating the boundary between St Davids and Whitchurch parishes. As the name suggests, water is the predominating feature of this area. The English antiquarian Browne Willis, using material supplied by a local correspondent (James 1981, 182), reported: ‘not far from a Place called Llandridian (Druid’s Church) there are nine Wells within five or six paces of one another’. (Willis 1716, 66. Willis’ etymology is incorrect here. Tridian is a personal name, and doubtless recalls an otherwise completely forgotten saint: in the parish of St Nicholas, ten miles north of St Davids, there is a further Llandridian, and a well called Ffynnon Dridian -Wade-Evans 1910, 28-9.) And the gentleman historian Richard Fenton, who was born in St Davids, in his Historical Tour through Pembrokeshire written a century later, remarks: ‘Part of the road is constantly irrigated with water issuing out of that conflux of springs called ‘ ‘The Nine Wells’ ” (Fenton 1903, 76),
Although from these descriptions it would appear that all nine wells were almost amalgamated, at least four individual springs and wells are identifiable, scattered around a slightly wider area, and are known locally as members of the Nine Wells. The most accessible representative of the group stands, as mentioned, on the wide verge beside the road at the entrance to the track leading to the coast. Its stone structure is camouflaged with ivy, and its frontal retaining slab has been deeply indented by the constant friction of buckets, indicating its heavy use by the local community within living memory.
Close to this well is a modern dwelling, formerly a pump house which was built over one of the conflux of springs at the turn of the last century in order to take water to St Davids. In the 1930s the other springs in the immediate vicinity were incorporated into a large underground tank, to boost this supply. The colourful folklore of Nine Wells, as collected locally by Jones, indicates the interest in this site both in pagan and Christian times
By these wells stood a cromlech which was destroyed in the last century, and where a mound still exists. The tradition states – that in pagan times twelve maidens each under twelve years of age were burnt alive as a sacrifice on the stone altar there; that in Catholic times mass was celebrated at the wells, priests dipped their rosaries there, and water was carried thence to St David’s Cathedral to wash the sepulchre (the shrine of David?); that sick pilgrims came from Tregroes via Dwrhyd by Llwybir Pererindod (the ‘Pilgrims’ Path’ I (the path and the name are lost) to bathe at Nine Wells, and were then conveyed in a cart to Non’s Well where the cure was completed, and were finally carried to the Cathedral where they were blessed by a priest (Jones 1992, 26).
The ‘altar’ was evidently the cromlech. In Wales, cromlechs were regularly termed altar, allor, because of their suggestive shape. Their earthen mounds would possibly have eroded by Iron Age times, revealing the altar-shaped structures, which may then have been associated with druidic sacrificial rites – if not in actuality, then in the imaginations of later generations. Hence the legend at Nine Wells (and possibly the ‘Druid’s Church’ of Willis’ report). The ‘pilgrims’ path’ from Tregroes (Whitchurch) to Nine Wells made a slight detour from the main southern pilgrims’ route across Wales and the St Davids peninsula, which passed through Whitchurch and on directly westwards to the shrine of St David.
( Though no other information has survived locally to substantiate this, the reference to the ‘pilgrims’ path’, and the consecutive visiting of the various sacred sites of the St Davids parish culminating in a visit to the cathedral, suggests perhaps that it was once the custom to visit all the ‘twelve’ chapels and wells of the region in a single ’round’ a common enough practice at specifically sacred pilgrimage sites throughout the Celtic lands. It is known from other shrines in Wales (at Holyhead, Anglesey, the custom continued into the eighteenth century) and is still a regular feature of pilgrimage in Ireland – note from editor)
The Neolithic engineers who were apparently supported by the farming communities to construct the chambered tombs, were also responsible for the first stone circles. These were refined by the incoming Bronze Age or Beaker Folk, around 2000BC, who also set up isolated standing stones (megaliths, or menhirs). These, like the cromlechs, are often found close revered to springs, or: with their long axes pointing to water courses 1992, (Jones 15-18, 10, Arch. Camb., 1989, 21). A local example of such a well and stone circle connection (St Non’s) will be described in Part Two.
The arrangements of stones could be used in conjunction with the heavens as almanacs to predict auspicious moments in the farming year (Worsley 1987, 2, 3, 38-9). Did they also play a part in utilising or controlling currents within the earth, and emanations from the water below ground? Electrical engineer and dowser Bill Lewis found that underground streams radiate outward from the centre of stone circles, passing directly beneath the gaps between the stones. The movement of underground water creates a small static electric field, intensified where such streams cross, An electrical field produced in this way also concentrates neutron (or natural) radiation (Hitching 1976, 119, 121-3; Gordon 1989, 48, 52). This is verified and developed by Roger Coghill, researcher and author of Electropollurion, who suggests that ‘since the telectricall current produced by the underground movement of water forms a continually changing magnetic field around itself, it constitutes a chronic disturbance of the environment’. Through case studies, he concludes that subterranean aquifers, particularly where streams cross at different levels, may detrimentally affect the health of life on the surface (Coghill 1990, 117, 64).
However it is also interesting to note that electro-magnetic fields (E.M.Fs) are used in modern medicine, as they appear to stimulate body tissue to heal faster; but that, if experienced at the wrong frequency, as indicated above they can be damaging. The early scientists, probably recognising these energies through observation and divination, could then have judged them helpful or harmful. If this learned group – perhaps constituted as a priesthood – could be seen to manipulate the forces of nature, they would have been in a powerful position; but their authority would ultimately have rested upon the maintenance of the prosperity of the land and its people.
Fundamental to this would have been the preservation of a fresh water supply, and in particular, the springs. These not only afforded vital refreshment, but had ‘magical’ (? mineral) properties which might promote health; and their constant outpouring would have symbolised fecundity and well-being, which might have been regarded as the favours of a mother-goddess. Such a female deity was likely at that time to have embraced all aspects of existence, including death (her images were buried in tombs with the dead: Green 1993, 72-3) and, naturally, water, the ‘quickening’ element of life. In the Neolithic era specific water worship is less distinct in Britain than in other ancient civilisations, such as those of Egypt and Greece. However, Aubrey Burl in his The Stone Circles of the British Isles has remarked upon the above-noted connection between stone circles and water sources, suggesting ‘the importance of water in the ceremonies that took place in the rings’ (Bord 1985, 2-4). Rites of passage such as birth, betrothal or death, and rituals to induce healing and divination, may have been celebrated at these sanctuaries. Remnants of these appear to have persisted through the ages, as folk memories and customs may reflect (Jones 1992, 15-16, 101).
The worship of water deities became more apparent in the Bronze Age. As metallurgy flourished, cult objects and votive offerings were fashioned in the new metal. Although no evidence has been found to date from this era at spring-sites in Wales (possibly due to lack of excavation), the veneration of springs at that time appears to have been widespread, propitiatory gifts in bronze having been found in Denmark, Switzerland, France, and Italy (Jones 1992, 96). Unnamed supernatural powers associated with water and the sun were worshipped, as shown by artefacts depicting aquatic birds and sun-symbols (for example, ducks with sun-wheels) in Central Europe (Green 1993, 138, 147-8). At a late-Bronze Age settlement at Lichterfelde, Germany, well-offerings of rows of small vessels layered with grass may indicate a request for water in times of drought (Green 1993, 139). A well, 100 deep, containing wooden buckets, ropes, utensils and amber beads possibly a ritual deposit – was discovered at Wilsford near Stonehenge (Bord 1985, 4). This shaft dates from the time of the completion of Stonehenge, c. 1300 BC, when the ‘blue stones’ from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire were rearranged in the way they are seen today (Green 1993, 145; Atkinson 1959, 17; Worsley 1987, 6, 32-5). The route that was established between the famous ‘temple’ in Wiltshire and the source of the esteemed spotted dolerite of the Preselis was significant in the Bronze Age for another reason, which also concerns St Davids. Merchant-smiths from as far away as Greece and Minoan Crete followed this road all the way to the Wicklow mountains in Ireland, where they traded their bronze, amber, and jet for Irish gold; a metal with which they delighted to decorate jewellery, weapons, and objects for use in solar worship (Worsley 1987, 52, 86; Bowen 1972, 43, 46, 48-9; Glob 1973, 101, 113, 115, 123-5). St Davids, at the closest corner of Britain to Ireland, stood at the end of this land route (‘the Golden Way’) across Wales, Porth Mawr (Whitesands Beach) being the embarkation point for the traders’ sea crossing. It is possible that some of our holy wells close to the shore once received offerings in bronze adorned with ship symbols, tokens greatly favoured at that period as protective prayers for dangerous voyages by sea (Glob 1973, 148).
Part two with references next month
Many years ago a friend of mine claimed his mother had discovered the location of the Muswell and she had become a bit of an expert on it. I remember her claiming that it was in a cupboard which at the time I thought was odd although I did not challenge her and forgot about it until now. In truth there still appears to be some confusion over the titular well of this well-known, London area- Muswell The name of this well has been confused, the most obvious is the secular Mossy well, which has been interpreted as Moses Well or St. Mary’s Well. Harte in his 2008 English holy wells suggests that the site is synonymous with St. Mary’s Well at Willesden. However, John Norden’s Speculum Britanniae of 1593. He wrote:
‘at Muswell Hill, called also Pinnersnall Hill, there was a chapel sometime bearing the name of Our Lady of Muswell where now Alderman Rowe hath erected a proper house. The place taketh the name of the well and the hill, Muswell Hill, for there is on the hill a spring of fair water which is within the compass of the house. There was sometime an image of the Lady of Muswell, whereunto was a continual resort in the way of pilgrimage, growing as is fabulously reported in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water upon a certain King of Scots who being strangely diseased was by some divine intelligence advised to take the water of the well in England called Muswell, which after long scrutation and inquisition, this well was found and performed the cure…’
John Aubrey in his Miscellanies, 1696, states that:
‘the water of this well is drunk for some distemper still’.
Indeed it is probable that two wells are under discussion. Stanley Foord’s 1910 Springs, Streams and Spas of London records that:
“in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water, upon a king of Scots, who being strangely diseased, was by some devine intelligence, advised to take the water of a Well in England, called Muswell, which after long scrutation, and inquisition, this Well was found and performed the cure”.
The king believed to Robert the Bruce (the Bruces held land nearby) but Malcolm has also been mentioned, and the illness was thought to be leprosy. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells calls it St Lazarus’ Well, although he is the only source. The author adds that it was ‘situated behind the Alexandra Palace’. Today a private house (no 10 Muswell road) stands on the ‘presumed’ site halfway along the road. Indeed, Muswell road is located just west of Alexandra Park and the famous Alexandra Palace. However there
is also a neglected well in front of a house in Muswell Avenue which has been identified by
one website Earth Stars. Alternatively, another website, https://www.londonslostrivers.com/muswell-stream.html, states emphatically:
“The present day Muswell Road, N10 is the location of the “Mossy Well” where the well still exists but is capped beneath a private house.”
The Hornsey Historical society, https://hornseyhistorical.org.uk/pins-or-muswell-hill/ state:
“The well survived until 1898 and a plaque on No. 40 Muswell Road marks the spot.”
To put a plaque up suggests pretty much certainty and indeed the site does correspond to marks on the first series OS.
The confusion is probably explained as Curls in his 2010 Spas, Wells and pleasure gardens of London notes that there were two holy wells in the area see Tottenham. These were described as being in good preservation at the end of the nineteenth century according to T. K. Cromwell (1823) History and description of the Parish of Clerkenwell. One well was described as producing hard, pellucid and hard water, the other was like rainwater. It is stated that in the mid-1800s, contrary to Cromwell, the landowners of one had sealed one well, prompting a civil action to preserve access for local people. The local people won in the case of 1862 and the Alexander Park Company had to provide a pump. Yet by 1880s the pump had begun to cease to function and the wells were only supplied by surface waters which was polluted. Around this time it was lost, this would appear to be the same site as St Dunstan’s Well. In 2016 workers digging Muswell Hill Broadway revealed a circular 30m deep well, which English Heritage are planning to investigate. Its location is unlikely to be the titular site but it is not impossible
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.
De Jafre you are the crown, the joy and the consolation; your love caresses, the region as one; our faith kneels, with your grace and virtue.
The Joys to Our Lady of the Fountains of Jafre by Mn. Francesc Viver and with music by Salvador Dabau. 1945.
Many visit Catalonia in Spain and visit Barcelona, Girona and of course the wonderful coastland, but for those interested in healing, holy and in this case water used for ritual purposes will find Catalonia a very rewarding location. Sites range from thermal springs to ritual mikveh and in at least one holy well. To find this holy well, a journey inland is necessary to locate the Santuari de la Font Santa with its fountain ‘dels Horts de Mari’.
Why a holy well here?
Why in this fairly remote location should there be a shrine to Our Lady you may ask. Well unsurprisingly this was due to an apparition of the Virgin seen by a local person. This was a local farmer, Miquel Castelló, who in November 1460, received a warning that the water of the spring would become miraculous. Interestingly, Miquel Castelló written statement and a document collating the witness testimony of a number of people which was commissioned by the Bishop of Girona are preserved. The following account gives fuller details of it:
“on a Friday in the year 1460, when Miquel del mas Castelló was plowing his field in Bosc Gran, a young stranger appeared to him and told him that the water from the spring had healing properties. Faced with the farmer’s disbelief, who did not believe his words, the young man prophesied that a child would die in Jafre that very day. Miquel Castelló hadn’t finished plowing when he heard knocking. When he returned home he learned that Bernat Dolza’s son had just died. Terrified, he told the rector what had happened to him and he immediately exhorted the parishioners to have faith in the waters of that source.”
Very soon after this news spread and people begun to visit to spring from all over the country. Its waters were said to be good for eye disorders, especially it is said for blind people. However, it was also good for paralysis, fevers, sore throat and rheumatism. Such was the popularity of the site that on the 25th June 1461 there was a general assembly of the local households and councillors which was presided over in the parish church by the vicar general of the diocese. At the meeting it was decided that a chapel, decided to Our Lady, would be built by the spring and make pools and eye washing places although they appear to have been now lost. The spring was formally then adopted as a holy well. The waters could be spiteful though and it is said if sinful people washed there the water would stop!
The sanctuary complex and springhead.
This 15th century complex consists of unified building made of rough stone and angular ashlars with a central chapel with outbuildings with the different rooms and a large atrium to which a lowered arcade gives access. The chapel has a single nave with a barrel vaulted roof however the cambril is modern having been destroyed in the 1930s Civil War.
The font itself flows from a small barrel vaulted arched structure with the water flowing from a metal pipe into a natural basin of rock covered with moss. One accesses the spring by a small set of stone steps down to the water. On ledges flowers and small offerings were placed indicating still an active shrine. The whole structure is made of undressed stone and pieces of pottery. Above the spring in a niche is a figure of the Virgin Mary.
This figure replaced one lost during the Civil War and is made of plaster with. She has the child Jesus on her knees and holds in her right hand a representation of the spring head and the child carries in his right hand the ball of the world. This figure was blessed on November 11, 1939, after the cult’s restoration on the 8th of September.
A place of pilgrimage
When I visited it was quiet and desolate feeling, the chapel was locked but access was easily found to the spring. However, at key dates in the Catholic and local calendar the sanctuary is busy with processions and people taking the water. The year starts with a local mass of thanks giving for the water’s role in the local town’s cholera epidemic in 1884, on or around the January 20th. Understandably the main days of procession and pilgrimage are those associated with significant feast days of our Lady such as March 25th, Feast of the Virgin Mary of Gràcia when the water from the fountain is blessed. On the May 1 or first Sunday in May there is also a blessing of the fields and of course the whole month of May being Mary’s month it is generally a popular day of devotion. The Assumption of Mary in or around the 15th August and perhaps the most significant the 8th of September, the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary with the 8th of December being recognised for the feast of The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Another notable day is Corpus Christi when a flower carpet is laid within the chapel’s aisle. Today the site is really only of local importance its countrywide fame disappearing over the years, but it remains and important holy well in Catalonia and one well worth visiting.
Most of the Belgian wells (about 300) spring in the countryside; and mainly in the French-speaking region. However towns are not unprovided by them.
So, in order to get a general idea let us be allowed to focus only on some of the them i.e on some of those to which healing power is attributed by tradition. They very often gave birth to cults or rites and generated enthusiastic pilgrimages surviving for centuries, consequently illustrating the depth of popular credulity in the past as at the present time.
If these fontaines merveilleuses are, in most cases, hidden away at the end of paths twisting through fields and woods, they are of easy reach in villages and towns. Occasionally, they may be fed by a hand pump. Sometimes, a chapel enhances the importance of the spot. These are determined by the zone of emergence of the miraculous source, according to the legend or life of the saint to whom it is closely related. Some names occur in the hagiography, whereas other names, taking into account dialectal pronunciations, became quite modified. Shall we dare say that some are simply apocryphal?
As a rule in Belgian villages, wells are situated alongside roads but can easily escape notice. Let us cite a few examples.
A Scots (Irish) Monk, named Monon (ob. circa 636) built a hut in solitude and sielence near the remote fons Nasiana or Nasonoa (now called Nassogne). Later on, Pepin the Short. Charlemagne’s father, who is aid to have caused a source to gush force there, in thankfulness for the kindness of God through Monon’s intercession came back to the lonely placed to richly endow the pious monk’s sanctuary. Nowadays, only an engraved slab modesty commemorates this fruit of a rather queer superstition of two medieval legends. Hence the pretty name of ‘Source de la Pepinette’
Another example is Saint Fredegan’s Well, hidden under the foundation of a house at Mousteir-sur-Sambre. It was supposed to cure children of tuberculosis or to improve their locomotion. They had to drink water from the spring. Some could be washed, dipped or even dressed with wet clothes. This out-of-the way tradition begun ‘a longe tyme ago’.
The most talked-of holy well in Belgium is undoubtedly found in the village of Banneux, near Verviers ie not far from the German border. This is an international centre of pilgrimage, devoted to the virgin after she appeared there in 1933. Thousands of hopeful pilgrims and tired day-trippers come mainly on summer sunny days to visit the chapel and gaze for a while at the neighbouring source topped by Mary’s statue. The water is renowned as miraculous.
At Bouval, horses are blessed, watered and well-groomed every August 24 at St Bartholomew’s Well. At this occasion, a procession takes place in the open country.
Saint Roch is believed to have cured himself of the plague after washing at the source at the village of Harnoncourt, so the legend tells. Ever since, the neighbourhood as always been preserved from epidemics. Once raised to the ground, the saint’s statue which formerly adorned the old washing-place, had been replaced. It has been set above the renovated fountain (1976). The odd thing about the well is that various personifications of the water (such as sprite monsters, undines, water people and cintry-people) are also present in a decorative manner. Pilgrims yearly come on August 15 to drink the water and to pray.
A cube shaped fountain, bearing the name of Saint Lawrence, whose cult is widespread, has been built below the church of Patagne-la-Grande. Its fresh water, people say, is a sovereign for burns, the saint having perished on a gridiron. There as at some other places, wells associate the Christian cult with the realities of peasant life.
Every year, also on August 15, a curious tradition is maintained at Saint Lawrence a village in the Namur district, with a procession and pageant in the saint’s honour. This gives the villages the opportunity for villagers dressed as soldiers to soak their points of their swords of the butts of their rifles into Saint Lawrence’s well water.
In the same province, it is said that a certain Lupicin, having three times driven his stick into the ground at Lustin, sprouted out three sources which fed Saint Lupicin’s Well. On Whit-Monday, pilgrims invoke him for headaches.
Since the eighteenth century, lots of pilgrims – hoping for the best – go to Marcourt (Province of Luxembourg) where Saint Theobald’s well, hidden in a wood, is supposed to be miraculous. After drinking the water, washing and in some cases filling bottles, devout folks stick crosses (made from two small branches of wood) into the ground as votive offerings. Should young girls walk three times in silence round the chapel, they will become engaged within the year.
At Vielsam in the same province, Saint Gengoux, killed by his wife’s sweetheart in the year 760 is paradoxically evoked for a couple’s union. This source is conceived by naïve lovers as the right spot for pilgrimage, not only against rheumatism and eye disorders, but also to plight one’s troth. That sounds silly, doesnt it? A useful wariness should be observed, for everyone knows how dodgy this may sometimes be!
Some of the many lavoirs (public washing places) situated in the southern and eastern parts of Belgium have been connected, too. in the course of time, to a particular cult. For instance, at Laneffe, horses are yearly invited to drink the water which is thought go have a beneficial effect on animals. . Whereas, at Villers-devant-Orval, those who suffer sorrows or finger infections evoke Saint Gengoux’s aid at his washing-place.
Other holy wells can also be seen in more or less extraordinary spots, even near the sad walls of a cemetery (Villers-la-Bonne-Eaux). Several, seated along side houses in picturesque surroundings, often date from Celtic times and are concealed far from indiscrete at Couture-Saint-Germain, on a hidden hillside in the open country and next to a chapel. Slow-growing children are taken there by distressed parents asking for relief with a glimmering of hope in their eyes. The pilgrimage is traditionally linked with various dipping of chemisettes and sick lambs. Three times linens must be dropped into the water, and the chapel passed round many times; and it is piointless to controvert established opinion.
Woods too, especially in the southern part of the Walloon region, including several holy wells. Charming legends are common, but many are no better known then the old story of King Alfred and the cakes is by today’s British computerised undergraduates. Some are not very easy to discover whilst others are found on the outskirts of villages or close by.
The goal of an annual pilgrimage since 1855 (for skin diseases), the small Saint Meen’s Fountain, near Couvin can be encountered at the verge of the wood. It is the only Belgian sanctuary consecrated to this Irish preacher much noted in Brittany (6th cent.)
We cannot forget, of course, to mention the other old fountain of Bellefontaine (Ardennes) designed for the purpose of commemorating Saint Furcy, another Irish priest (7th cent). They say he stayed there after having made a well spring out from his rod. In the past pious pilgrimage were very popular there, but in our hectic days, the dried up source is forlorn and does not attract anybody.
Others too, suffering loneliness and loss of interest, ceased to be hospitable and are no more alas! what used to be sic transit gloria mundo as we all know.
First published in Source Holy Wells Journal New Series No 3 Spring 1995
Many claim to be the oldest holy well but by virtue of its association with the first Christian ministry of the Saxons, St. Augustine’s Well Ebbsfleet is perhaps according to tradition the obvious claimant for the oldest ‘English’ holy well.
However early records are rare and its first reference appears to be on the 1874 OS map and its earliest written account is George Dowker in 1897 article for Archaeologia Cantiana On the landing place of St, Augustine records:
“Formerly Ebbsfleet was supposed to be situated where the farm-house of that name stands, and is so placed in the Ordnance Maps of Thanet; of late the spot has been shifted to near ” The Sportsman,” and by a spring of water called St. Augustine’s “Well, chiefly on the representation of the late Mr. W. R. Bubb, who resided at Minster; he walked with me to the spot where the present memorial cross is erected, and explained his reasons for concluding that the landing must have been there, and not at or near the Ebbsfleet Farm, as usually represented. These reasons were chiefly the presence of a large oak tree that was said to have formerly grown there, and the proximity of the place to Cotting-ton-field, which he thought a corruption of Godman-field.”
Interestingly it almost suggested that it was Bubb who coined the well and it would appear to be a possible invention by revived Catholics. This is supported by Rev Boggis (1907) in A history of St. Augustine’s College Canterbury,, as a Catholic revival:
“The next station is made at St. Augustine’s Well — just to quaff a draft from the spring which he is fabled to have brought bubbling up through the briny sands.”
The account also adds a piece of folklore similar to the tradition that like Becket at Otford he perhaps prayed for water, which is related by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin who states the saint was able to provide water for his thirsty followers by striking the ground with his pastoral staff but this could equally be another site. Iggleseden (1901-1946) Saunters in Kent. He describes:
“..a stagnant pool, the remains of a well, which had the reputation of miraculous healing powers, while the water was also used for baptismal purposes.”
However, Howarth (1938) who notes:
“near which is a well (known locally as St. Augustine’s well). This will continue to delude people into the notion that there is a real foundation for the view.”
Yet, Certainly by Stanley (1956) in The London Season pilgrimage was formalised:
“Near to the fifth green is a little spring of clear water which is known as St. Augustine’s Well, which legend holds appeared miraculously to slake the Saint’s thirst. Every year this site is the scene of the pilgrimage headed by the Warden of St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, who, in his role of Bishop Knight, kneels by the spring to drink the water.”
Why wonder what connection that has with what James Rattue (2003) in his Holy wells of Kent records:
“Apparently local nuns used to clear it out, but this has ceased to happen for almost twenty years.”
I was also informed by some members that this site was where a drunken vicar drowned, but have not substantiated this story.
St Augustine or St Mildred’s Well?
Howarth (1938) does not support the fact that Ebbsfleet was the location where on Whitsun A.D. 597, Augustine baptised heathen Saxons, amongst them, possibly King Ethelbert in the area. However, local lore recognised first a tree and now an ornate carved cross dating from the 1800s which depicts the story however there is a possible another association. James Rattue (pers com) suggests that the well may have originally been dedicated to St. Mildred, daughter of Queen Ermenburga, who was given land at Thanet, by the converted King Egelbert, as an apology for killing her brothers. Here, she founded a monastery, and became the Abbess of Thanet Minster; latter becoming their patron saint.
The view that the well was dedicated to her is based upon local tradition that a stone, located within proximity of the well, bore the footprint of the saint, made miraculously as she set foot on the land at Ebbsfleet, from France. One tradition associated with St. Mildred’s stone is that it could never be removed. Whenever it was it returned to the same position! This is a common folklore belief only spoiled here by the fact that St. Mildred’s stone has not been seen since the 1800s!
The site today
When James Rattue visited he described it as:.
“a pit, now usually dry, but which represents St Augustine’s Well.”
Now on the 17th fairway of St. Augustine’s Golf Course St. Augustine’s Well is a large circular steep sided pool, from which a sluggish stream arises, flowing to the sea. I found it full of water but not very pleasant more recent photos have shown cleaner water.
The plants and trees on the surrounding banks seem to lean towards St Aldhelm’s Well in perpetual veneration. The effect is of being at the heart of a leafy hermit’s cell. The magic of the place is hidden from irreverent eyes by a wall through which the water trickles in a trough in the lane. In May the wooded slopes are lush with pungent wild garlic and all year round the steady sound of running water offers a refreshing reward even for the most world-weary modern pilgrim.
The village of Doulting (Somerset) lies about two miles east of Shepton Mallet on the A361. The name means ‘dark water’ and until the eighteenth century the river Sheppey was known as Doulting water. The village is famous for its stone which was used in the building of Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury Abbey. In previous years Doulting St Agnes fountain (another holy well) was reputed to cure the ‘quarter-all’ (cattle paralysis) but not if the cattle was stolen.
St Aldhelm, after whom the well is named, was a Benedictine monk who died in Doulting in 709. He is immortalised in the present church in stained class and in a statue; standing beside his spring, which he often visited to pray and to baptise the faithful. It was customary until recently to use the wall water for all christening; these days this only happens at the special request of the parents.St Aldhelm was the first Englishmen to encourage classical study; writing lengthy prose in a flowery and extravagant Latin style. He moved in high circles and was a relative of Ina, the heathen King of the Saxons, as well as being Abbot of Malmsebury and later Bishop of Sherborne.
He also appears to have had an eccentric side to his character. Gloria and Favid Bowles are residents of Doulting and have made an extensive study of the saint and his well. They hold the spot in high regard and due to their strong sense of connection with the place, are keen to see it preserved as a sacred shrine. David told me that Aldhelm used to nuddgle and eat fire to attract would-be converts, as wella s being remembered for lying up to his neck in the ice-cold well bath, whilst reciting the Psalter. Hewent on to say, with an impish smile, that he cherishes a mental picture of St. Aldhelm juggling three balls before a fascinated audience while muttering ‘ Father, son and holy ghost’
The well is now under the management of the Shepton Mallet Amenity Trust which bought it from Wells Cathedral for £1. The trust tried to interfere as little as possible with the site, doing minor repairs to the walling and felling some dangerous trees. Test on the water proved it free of contaminants and good to drink. Plans a few years ago to bottle the water for wider distribution were not met warmly by the village and were abandoned.
In 1893 R. C. Hope in his Holy Wells of England described the water as ‘wonder-working; and there are legends about its ability to cure blindness. Fred Davies of the Amenity Trust told me that less than ten years ago a Shepton woman of his acquaintance bathed her child’s severe eczema with the water from the well and the condition cleared. There appears to be no recent mineral analysis of the water, which seems a worthwhile task, in view of the well’s reputation.
According to Janet and Colin Bord in their book Sacred Waters (Granada 1985) the earliest water cults can be traced to around 6000 BC with an increasing awareness of the importance of unpolluted water, we are today seeing something of a revival in interest in water lore. Most ancient cultures developed ritualised ways of honouring the value of water. Divinities and the guardian of sacred wells was recognised as female and revered by many names the world over. Some of the old deities’ names still remain hidden in the names of our rivers today. Ceremonies were regularly performed beside wells and springs – to improve one’s fortune, gain insight into the future, seek healing or even make a curse. Often wells are attributed with specialised healing properties; eye complaint, infertility and children’s ailments being most usual. In less cynical days than ours, pieces of clothing from the sick would be bathed in water and bound to the ailing part or tied to the branches overhanging the well. These days rags and offerings can sometimes be found in the vicinity of ancient holy wells and the tradition of well dressing surviving only in Derbyshire is now reappearing in other parts of the country.
For many years St. Aldhelm’s Well was a site of pilgrimage and in the 30s and 40s Dom Ethelbert Horne, a Downside monk and enthusiastic antiquarian, took parties of visitors to the well. He recorded its existence for posterity in his book ‘Holy wells of Somerset’ (1923)Today as well as being a recreational spot and a water hole, for many in the village and beyond the well continues to be a place of pilgrimage and, from tome to time, local people have decorated it with flowers and candles to honour it as a natural spring
(The above was the first draft of a booklet entitled St Aldhelm’s Well published by Ms Sherwood (Shepton Mallet 1991) and is printed her by kind permission of the author.
In Charles Hope’s 1893 Legendary lore of Holy wells St Patrick’s Well Patterdale is the only site mentioned twice in both Cumbria and Westmorland:
“PATTERDALE: ST. PATRICK’S WELL: St. Patrick’s Well is situated near the chapel in Patterdale.
PATTERDALE : ST. PATRICK’S WELL: As Saint Patrick passed down this beautiful valley he is said to have founded the church and blessed the well. Thus we have St. Patrick’s church and St. Patrick’s well to this day, the ancient name of the valley being Patrickdale.
For many centuries the Holy Well was used for the purposes of baptism.- — Rev. J. Wilson.”
St Patrick in Cumbria?
As Hope notes St Patrick passed by but how? A local tradition tells that he was shipwrecked off the south Cumbria coast and the local people here looked after him. The earliest reference appears to be Nicolson & Burn in their 1777 The History and Antiquities of the Counties of Westmorland and Cumberland, who say:
“so called probably from St Patrick, to whom the chapel seems to be dedicated… and nigh unto the chapel is a well called St Patrick’s well”.
The Rev W.P Morris wrote in 1903
“During his short stay here he caused a church to be built (probably of wood) and that he also baptised a number of the inhabitants at a well, and the district was afterwards known as Patrickdale”
Is it a back derivation?
The name was recorded as Patrichesdale, meaning ‘Patrick’s Valley’, in 1184 but equally this apparently refers to a twelfth-century landownwer and at some point the saint was attached. Certainly by 1787 the name had stuck as it appears as St Patrick’s Well appears on Clarke’s map of the Lakes. So despite attempts of topographers and cartographers it probably has very little to do with the saint. There is a record of a cappella de Patricdale in 1348 which may have confused the issue.
However, in his Confessio St Patrick states that he was brought up in Britain in a place called Bannaven Taburniae. Here his father was a deacon and grandfather a priest and from here he was kidnapped by raiders and sold into slavery. This Bannaven Taburniae has not been identified but of course it could be in Cumbria. The evidence being that the saint was taken to Ireland suggesting a west coast location and looking at the name it could be Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall or Glannoventa where substantial bath house ruins remain near Ravenglass which is even nearer. So it is possible.
The well today
The well is one of the most substantial in Cumbria being a small stone building with a pointed roof akin to a small chapel made of grey stone with a slate roof. The well was dry when I visited but apparently it is more often full of water especially in the spring and summer. Fr John Musther’s in his 2017 Springs of Living Water states that the water had healing properties. The constructor of the well is not known but it is evidently some local estate owner. The Rev Morris stated that it was constructed in the 18th Century to satisfy the “idle curiosity of visitors” and did not think it was in the correct location. Dry or otherwise if you can manage the road and the visitors it is a delightful find in the Lake district.
St Chad’s Well at Stowe on the edge of Lichfield is perhaps one of the few such named wells with a direct link to the saint. The site has a more direct link as Thomas Dugdale’s 1817 County of Warwickshire states in his translation of the death of Saints Wulfade and Rufinus based on 14th century text that Wulfade the son of the pagan king Wulfhere of the Mercians was hunting when he pursued a white hart, and the wounded stag took him to the hermitage of St Chad:
“which he had built within the thickets of the wood on the edge of a spring, so that he might throw himself into its waters to overpower the heaviness of sleep and reawaken himself with its cold”.
St Chad took advantage of the occasion to preach to the prince, telling him that:
“as the hart desireth the water brooks, so he should seek after the cool grace of baptism, and Wulfade, converted by this analogy, consented to be baptised from the well. Rufinus soon followed the same course. At first his father was angry and killed his sons, but afterwards he repented and gave nobly to the Church. “
According to Simon Gunton’s 1686 History of Peterburgh Cathedral there were windows in the cloisters of Peterborough Cathedral, accompanied by mottoes apparently of the fifteenth century which told how
‘the Hart brought Wulfade to a Well and ‘That was beside Seynt Chaddy’s Cell.”
John Floyer discussing St Chad in his 1702 Essay to prove cold bathing both safe and useful proposes that:
“the Well near Stow, which may bear his Name, was probably his Baptistery, it being deep enough for Immersion, and conveniently seated near that Church; and that has the Reputation of curing Sore Eyes, Scabs, &c. as most Holy Wells in England do”.
Robert Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells states that the water was thought to be dangerous to drink because it caused fits. Septimus Sunderland’s 1915 Old London’s Baths, Spas and wells also met a woman who looked after the well who said that it still had a reputation for bad eyes and rheumatism and was known as a Wishing Well. Thomas Harwood in his 1806 The History and Antiquities of the Church and City of Lichfield states that at the well it was adorned with:
“…boughs, and of reading the gospel for the day, at this and at other wells and pumps, is yet observed in this city on Ascension Day.”
However, by the time of Langford (1896) he noted that it was but sadly shorn of its ancient glory. According to Skyking Walters’ 1928 Ancient Wells and Springs of the Cotswolds, the site was still decorated with flowers on Ascension Day, a tradition which continues today in a modern form similar to that seen in Derbyshire. The site despite being in the grounds of an Anglican church was the site of Catholic pilgrimages from 1922 until the 1930s (although an Anglican one visited in 1926)
In his Itinerary of c. 1540 (published 1906–10), John Leland reports that:
“Stowchurche in the est end of the towne, whereas is St Cedd’s well, a thinge of pure water, where is sene a stone in the bottom of it, on the whiche some say that Cedde was wont nakyd to stond on in the water, and pray.”
The stone mentioned by Leland was still there or a version of it in the 1830s as it was shown to any visitors who visited the site and appears to have had its own significance in cures and rituals at the well.
The tour diary of John Loveday, 1732 (published 1890) states in reference to Stowe church that:
“near it, in a little garden is St Chad’s Well, its Water is good for sore Eyes; it is of different colours in a very little time, as They say.”
According to the V.C.H. (1908–84), the well was cleaned in 1820 by the churchwardens as it had become only six feet deep and the supply of water had become reduced by the draining of local water meadows. The well basin itself had become filled up with mud and in 1830 a local physician James Rawson built an octagonal stone structure over the well bemoaning in the Gentlemen’s magazine in 1864:
“Whatever the well might have been originally, it had, by the year 1833, degenerated into a most undignified puddle, more than six feet deep . . .
…..from two men of far-advanced age, in the year 1833, I learned that the supply of clear water around the well had become much lessened by the drainage of the lower meadows during the latter part of the eighteenth century, At all events, by the date
first named here, the well-basin had become filled up with mud and filth; and on top of this impurity a stone had been placed was described by the sight-showers as the identical stone on which St Chad used to kneel and pray!
For my own part, hoping by means of a public subscription to procure a new supply of water for the site of this ancient baptistry . . . I endeavoured to exclude the surface water of the old marsh land from the well, because of this surface water being loaded with orchre: and, as a feeder for the well, a supply of clear water was carefully obtained from the rock at a moderate distance, for close to the well a running sand became an impediment to the work. Over the well an octagonal building was erected with a saxon-headed doorway, and a stone roof surmounted by a plain Latin cross .”
It is interesting how a tradition soon built up around this new structure. Langford (1896) notes how wishes would be granted by placing one’s hand on a granite stone built into the well house, which was said to be that originally used by St. Chad.
By the early 1920s, the supply dried up and the well was lined with brick and a pump was fitted over the well and a special service was held in 1923 by the rector to officially open the pump. This created a revival. Catholic pilgrimages begun each year from 1922 to the 1930s and even an Anglican pilgrimage in 1926.
However by 1941 the well had become derelict, and after a commission set up by the Bishop of Lichfield it was restored in the 1950s, unfortunately replacing the 1840 octagonal structure with an open structure with a tiled roof (with R. Morrell in his 1992 Source article calls the Stowe bandstand). And so St Chad’s Well remains, not perhaps the most romantic of structures, but a link to those early Christian times.
“Walkers enjoy day in ‘Hidden’ forest. Hundreds of ramblers and conservationists converged on the secret Wychwood Forest on Sunday to walk through its leady glades. It was the one day of the year – Palm Sunday – when Lord Rotherwick the owner of the 2150 acre medieval woodlands, allows public access.”
To which I might add just! This is a curious custom where part of the tradition remains, but aspects of it appear to have disappeared. The custom apparently was established to provide access of the local parishes adjacent – Leafield Five Ash, Charlbury and Finstock particularly – for the collection of wood and the visiting of the springs and wells of the estate. It is the latter of which is of considerable interest.
If you go down the woods…..
My aunt and uncle did not live far from this area and I have always been fascinated with this woods and their privacy. Apparently, I was not the only one. Large numbers of visitors could be found wandering the woods; their cars lined the narrow streets around the forest. It was not just for local people. In an excellent article by Roy Townsend on the Finstock Local History Website records the memories of a Mr Pratley of nearby Finstock. He notes the widespread nature of the visitors:
“It was possible to meet people from Cornwall one minute, then a family from Durham a few yards later.”
But why? The name the ‘Secret Forest’ was part of the appeal no doubt. It was a forest which could only be visited on Palm Sunday each year. Any other time of the year it was strictly out of bounds. Everyone loves a mysterious place and getting access to it was part of the allure.
One of the major reasons for the access on Palm Sunday was for the local community to visit the springs and wells, which were thought to have a healing tradition on the day. A local historian, John Kibble, noted in 1928, recorded that prayers were said at the springs:
“Hast then a wound to heal; The wych doth grieve thee?Come then unto this welle, It will relieve thee:Nolie me tangeries, And other maladies”
This was one of the main reasons also why the estate and its curious access tradition fascinated me. Wells and springs were often visited on this date, but this one appeared to have the longest surviving tradition and from some accounts some people still did it. The main aspect of this tradition undertaken was to make Spanish Water, using liquorice, brown sugar or sweets often black peppermints. Mr. Pratley again notes:
“This tradition took place all through the 20th century, and probably before, although the liquorice may have originally come from the root of the plant, rather than being shop bought.”
Three wells can still be found in the estate – the Cyder, the Wort and the Spa or Iron Well. The Wort Well or another lost well called Uzzle were the most popular apparently around them would grow wild liquorice. The name wort derives from healing suggesting its health giving properties. Of the Iron Well, Roy Townsend notes:
“Spanish Liquor is made up with some pieces of hard liquorice with two to three black gobstopper type sweets and white peppermints which were crushed, made up on Saturday night and shaken well on Sunday Morning. You take your bottle with the mixture in down to the well behind the kennels called the Iron Well. If it’s still there behind the fencing. We were forbidden to drink much of it on the way home.”
A poster in the Finstock Local History website, called Fabulous Flowers notes:
“I remember walking to the Iron Well on Palm Sunday with my great Aunty Vi and Molly and mixing the water with our Spanish liquor. Before the footpath was opened through the Wychwood forrest (sic) as it is know this was the only day you could walk down to the lakes and I remember lots of people doing this.”
The date of this visitation is unclear but this aspect tradition appears close to extinction or is extinct. An account noted that:
“a man from Leafield, who used to take his bottle of mixture to the well up until a few years ago.”
On entering the estate I still noticed that the route outlined still made a bee-line to the Iron Well. The route had been diverted and I easily found my way in courtesy of a man who did the walk every Palm Sunday. I made my way at first to the Iron Well. I wasn’t convinced to drink the water..it certainly lived up to its name, having a reddy-orange scum on the edges – it didn’t look very appetizing. Entering the park I first made a slight detour to see the Cyder Well, which poured out a considerable flow of clear fresh water. However, I thought I would leave my Spanish water experience to the main well which was associated with the tradition – the Wort well. This was the less impressive of the springs but the easiest to determine the spring source.
The name wort is suggestion of a long tradition of healing – wort is said to be a healing source, more frequently the end of a herb such as woundwort! Its other name Uzzle is suggestive that it derives from the Anglo-Saxon greeting Wæs þu hæl, meaning “be in good health” and thus again suggests it was a general cure-all.
Thus I lowered my bottle and filled it. Popping in my liquorice and giving it a shake I took a slip…it was refreshing but I could detect no real flavour. However as I progressed back along the path regular sips revealed a more flavoursome experience. By the end it was rather delicious and I regretted not filling more bottles or having more liquorice.
One wonders how old the Palm Sunday access is as Briggs refers to an Easter Monday tradition:
“on Easter Monday the Leafield people maintained, and still believe that they have the right to go into the Wychwood Forest and make Spanish Water which is made from one of the sacred springs in Wychwood Forest. The bottle is then shaken till the liquorice is dissolved. This is believed to be not only a tonic but a sovereign remedy for all kinds of disorders. It is grievance to the Leaford people that Wychwood is now closed to them.”
However, talking to local people they stated that they had had 100s of years of access on the date. In the church at Charlbury, I fortunately met Mrs Fowler. She informed me that visiting wells for Spanish Liquor was still very common up until in the 1980s. She and her husband remembered that a Royston (Dobber) Scroggs, a Cotswold Warden, would stand by the well and tell people the history. This is no more. However, small groups do formally visit the springs such the Green Friends of the Hindu spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi who undertook a walk in 2014 and the Wychwood Forest church in 2017 who visited the Iron and Wort Wells.
Wandering around I watched a number of people on my journey around, of which only one came near to the springs…although they did fill a bottle and drink it. They did not have any liquorice though…Fortunately I did and it tasted rather nice.
Cannot see the wood for the trees.
Ironically the popularity of the custom appeared to lead to its decline. An account from 1984 tellingly records:
“And the Council for the Protection of Rural England took it as an opportunity to promote its campaign to have the forest opened all the year around. Walkers and ramblers were asked, and were willing to sign a petition supporting the campaign. They were signing at the rate of 100 an hour.”
And so that signing lead to the opening up of a permanent footpath, from Patch Riding, Finstock, to Waterman’s Lodge, near Charlbury, through the estate in 1990..the one I used to access the permissive path. It may be only one, but like any incision, it allowed greater access and so the mystic began to fade…but not quite yet. It was clear that Palm Sunday I went that a considerable number of local and not so local people were still keen to see the vistas and green swards generally unavailable. The estate covers a considerable area and the footpath only crosses a very small section.
Walk on the wild side
The Palm Sunday Walk is a curious survival but one still under threat. Many years ago the clergy tried to bribe children by offering free crucifixes to keep them in church. Even today a poster to the Finstock History page notes:
“The last time I tried to visit it on a Palm Sunday, the gate which would have given access to the iron well was locked. I suspect it is only ignorance that keeps us out: if the local history society asked, they’d probably let a group in next year.”
But local people are determined to keep the Palm Sunday Walk open. Mr Pratley writes:
“I walk this permanent footpath regularly but also try to do the Palm Sunday walk as often as possible, as that’s still the only day the Five Ash Bottom route is open to the public.”
He remarks he saw few people despite doing a complete circuit! Indeed, when I arrived I found the traditional route sadly blocked and plenty of walkers appearing and then turning around scratching heads and moaning. However, at least access remains whether people take the waters or not…plenty enough people were happy to ensure that the custom of walking the path remained.
However it would be nice to see more Spanish Water drinking. The is especially significant when if you visit many wells you can find the tradition of tying objects, called clooties to the trees, a tradition foreign to many places it is now found. It would be better to see the revival of more native traditions such as Spanish Water drinking – at this site I can safely vouch for its safety of drinking its water. So if you are in the area please keep the Spanish water alive!