Category Archives: Pilgrimage

A Glimpse of Holy Wells in Belgian Villages – Karl Petit (Source New Series 3 Spring 1995)

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

England’s first holy well? St. Augustine’s Well, Ebbsfleet

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 Divine Juggler of Doulting by Caroline Sherwood Source Issue 2 (Winter 1994)

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

June 1989

(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. 

Did St. Patrick visit the Lake District? St Patrick’s Well, Patterdale

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’ Well, Stowe, Lichfield – perhaps the only genuine St Chad’s Well?

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.

Visiting the Wychwood Forest healing springs on Palm Sunday

DSC_1329
A throng of walkers pass the Wort Well

“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.

Well wishing…

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.”

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The Iron Well
Cyder well
The Cyder Well

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.”

ironwell route
The Cornbury Map showing route directly to Iron Well.

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.

Close up of the iron rich waters of the Iron Well

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.

My bottle of Spanish water by the Wort Well

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.

sugar cupping
Liquorice dissolving in the water of the Wort Well

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!

The Iron Well

Fons Scotiae – The well of Scotland, the well of monarchs

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If there was a claim for the Scottish holy well visited by the most famous people it must be the suitably named Scotlandwell. It would add that it is also one of the most picturesque holy wells in Britain and very easy to find – being signposted down a lane with parking off the village that shares its name.

A Roman site

It is said that in the late 1st century A.D the Romans named the well Fons Scotiae’ . Whilts it is known in 84 AD, Roman soldiers were marching between their camps at Lochore in Fife and Ardoch in Perthshire however, there does not appear to be any evidence especially archaeologically, but what is known that a hospital dedicated to St Mary was established in the area in 1250 by the Trinitarian Friars. It is locally said that they utilised the water. Their association may have attracted one of the most famous of Scotland’s kings – Robert the Bruce. It is alleged that he came here to be cured of leprosy. Janet and Colin Bord in their 1985 Sacred Waters note:

 “Robert Bruce, King of Scotland (1306-29) suffered from leprosy, and at least three wells were reputedly used by him in his search for a cure. He is said to have been responsible for a well at Prestwick (Ayr) which flowed where he stuck his spear in the sand while resting from his struggles with the English. He stayed for several days, and his leprosy was reputedly cured. He is said to have built a leper hospital for those who could not afford treatment. He also visited the St Lazarus Well at Muswell Hill (London) being granted a free pass by the King of England to do so.”

It is thus said to have become a place of pilgrimage. Another monarch, Mary Queen of Scots also is said to have visited it. However, the Friar’s  establishment remembered as Friar Place was demolished in 1587 probably not long after Mary’s patronage at the start of the great Reformation in Scotland.

However, the well itself must have been accessible as Bill Anderton in his 1991 Ancient Britain tells us that:

 “ records show that Charles II travelled from his Dunfermline Palace to take the waters.”

Whatever these records are, are in themselves unclear and whilst the ancient royal seat of Dunfermline is indeed not many miles from the site, I have been unable to find further details.

Restored site

The site may have slowly disappeared into obscuring if it was not for the fortitude of local landowners. When in the early 1820s the site, itself common land, could be described as:

“an almost unapproachable slough of mire and filth” and within it “a half ruinous building used sometimes as a washing house and sometimes as a slaughter house.”

This may have been some remains of the Friar’s buildings perhaps and it is impossible that some older stone in the current fabric of the well house could be from this date. The building of the ornamental well and its nearby wash house was done by a Thomas Bruce of Arnot who owned land in the aras between 1857 and 1860 after acquiring the land. He employed David Bryce an important Edinburgh architect to draw up plans for both in 1857 which consisted of a large stone lined bath like chamber covered accessing all around by covered by grill. Over which is an ornate wooden roof, akin to a alpine chalet style. All painted dark green. Water bumbles up through sandy soil in the water quite obviously and then emerges from a small gap into a small circular basin and then run off. Steps go down from both sides to reach the outflow. Using stone available from quarries nearby that the well was completed soon after at the cost of £154 in 1858. On either side of the water spout are the initials TBA for Thomas Bruce of Arnot and his wife Henrietta Dorin embossed. The nearby washhouse also bears TBA and 1860.

Thomas Bruce of Arnot stated in his memoirs:

“The improvement of the village and of its “Well” has cost me more money than some might perhaps say I aught to have expended upon them, but it has been a subject of great interest to me and I have been far more than repaid in one way at least by the gratification it has afforded to the villagers by a desire for whose moral improvement it was that I was mainly actuated in what I did and am still doing.”

Then in 1922 two years after the death of Sir Charles Bruce of Arnot the well and wash house, were handed over to the people of Scotlandwell as a gift and the site is currently looked after by the Parish council.

The bath house locally called ‘The Steamie’ was where laundry was washed, being connected to the well’s underground water source, ceased being used in 1960s but has recently been restored as a small tourist attraction and currently leaflets are given out concerning the well and the bath house

No photo description available.

Still curing?

In Ruth and Frank Morris’s 1978 Scottish Healing Well they note:

“In October 1978 we met there a women, her husband and brother who had travelled from Edinburgh a round trip of some 80 miles which they frequently made, to fill to two large bottles with clear well water. One of the men, a cancer sufferer had been induced to take the water some time before and found it did him some good , clearing a stubborn body rash that he continued to use the water: “If it was good enough for Robert the Bruce, it’s good enough for me. ”

However, reaching for the metal cup I took myself a large gulp not noticing that the sign that he had read when Ruth and Frank Morris had visited in 1978: ‘Health giving water of Scotlandwell  was for many years used to help cure the sick…” was replaced with UNFIT TO DRINK DO NOT DRINK!

Oh well this was a few summers ago and I am still okay. Whether you drink or not, Scotlandwell is one of the country’s most attractive and perhaps oldest healing springs.

In search of rag wells: Cornish rag wells a photo archive

The clootie tree at St Euny's Well by Chris Gunns
The clootie tree at St Euny’s Well

Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Chris Gunns and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Cloutie tree near Madron Well by Jim Champion
Cloutie tree near Madron Well

This tree is alongside the gravel path to Madron Well Chapel, and is hung with clouties (pieces of rags and clothing) which is a traditional custom originally carried out to ask the well spirits to cure illnesses and hurts. The actual Madron Holy Well is about 70 metres west of this point at SW44553274 but it is not easy to get to because of the wet conditions underfoot. It is much easier to continue along the path to the ruined chapel where there is another well basin which was also considered to be a holy well.
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Jim Champion and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The cloutie tree near Madron Well by Rod Allday
The cloutie tree near Madron Well

‘Clouties’ are strips of fabric which are attached to the tree near this holy well – as the fabric decays the ailment from which the supplicant is suffering is said to fade away.
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Rod Allday and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The cloutie tree near Madron Well by Chris Gunns
The cloutie tree near Madron Well

‘Clouties’ are strips of fabric which are attached to the tree near this holy well – as the fabric decays the ailment from which the supplicant is suffering is said to fade away.
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Chris Gunns and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Sancreed Holy Well by Michael Murray
Sancreed Holy Well

This is the Cloutie Tree guarding the entrance to the Well.
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Michael Murray and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

St Credan’s Well, Sancreed by Humphrey Bolton
St Credan’s Well, Sancreed

Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Humphrey Bolton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

In search of rag wells: Irish rag wells a photo archive

Wishing trees at St Cooey's Well by Eric Jones

Wishing trees at St Cooey’s Well ©Copyright Eric Jones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Holy Well, Cranfield Co Antrim by Robert Ashby
The Holy Well, Cranfield Co Antrim

The Holy Well at Cranfield near the old church on the shore of Lough Neagh. Pilgrimages were made to the well between May Eve and 29th June. The tradition of hanging healing rags and tokens still continues. Amber pebbles found in the well are said to have great healing powers. An annual Mass is carried out to bless the boats of the local fishermen.
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Robert Ashby and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Eye Well by Kenneth Allen
The Eye Well

At the base of the promontory below the ruined church is a spring, known locally as the “Eye Well”, which is believed to have curative powers for eye ailments. It must be extensively used as I could see hundreds of clothes hung on branches of the trees. They would have been dipped into the healing waters. I gather that a prayer is said as the rag is left there. A descriptive stone is nearby H3462 : Path leading to the eye well, Dromore There used to be a holy well at Errigal, Ballygawley where people went to with similar complaints H5857 : Holy well, Gort And recently I noticed this holy tree at Navan Fort H8445 : Holy tree, Navan Fort
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Kenneth Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

St Brigid's Well: Loch Dearg by louise price
St Brigid’s Well: Loch Dearg

An ancient site on the west bank of Loch Dearg, although the stone work here & cross wrapped in ‘votive’ rags is modern, this is the original site of a medieval wooden bridge to Saint’s Island, said to be the original island of pilgrimage as opposed to the current Station Island.
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright louise price and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Abbey Well by louise price
The Abbey Well

Tobar na Bachaille: the Well of the Staff or Crozier. This ancient well is associated with St. Patrick and St Colmcille, who helped his cousin St Barron found Killbarron church. On August 15th people come here on pilgrimage to pray and some tie strips of cloth to a tree as votive offerings.
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright louise price and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Tobernalt in Co. Sligo by Enda O Flaherty
Tobernalt in Co. Sligo

Votive offerings hang at the holy well of Tobernalt in Co. Sligo
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Enda O Flaherty and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

"Do not leave rags" notices, St Malachy's Well by Kenneth Allen
“Do not leave rags” notices, St Malachy’s Well

There is a similar situation at Dromore, in County Tyrone, on a smaller scale, where the Eye Well is located outside the town, in which cloths are left beside the well, which is reputed to have healing properties H3462 : Eye well, Dromore Pictured here H7932 : Interior of St Malachy’s Well
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Kenneth Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

 

A holy well in a mysterious sea cave

One of the most evocative holy wells is perhaps one of the most unique fittingly. The first to record it was William Hals in his 1685-1736 History of Cornwall. He records that:

“In this parish is that famous and well-known spring of water called Holy-well (so named the inhabitants say, for that the virtues of this water was first discovered on Allhallows- day).”

So far not perhaps that unusual. But he continues:

“The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea- cliff’ rocks, beneath full sea-mark on spring-tides ; from the top of which cavern foils down or distils continually drops of water, from the white, blue, red, and green veins of those rocks. And accordingly, in the place where those drops of water fall, it swells to a lump of considerable bigness, and there petrifies to the hardness of ice, glass, or freestone, of the several colours aforesaid, according to the nature of those veins in the rock from whence it proceeds, and is of a hard brittle nature, apt to break like glass.”

Over a hundred years later,  John Cardell Oliver’s 1877 Guide to Newquay romantically records:

“It is a somewhat curious place. After passing over a few boulders the mouth of the cave will be reached, where steps will be found leading up to the well. This rock-formed cistern is of a duplicate form, consisting of two wells, having a communication existing between them. The supply of water is from above; and this water, being of a calcareous nature, has coated the rock with its earthy deposits, giving to the surrounding walls and to the well itself a variegated appearance of white, green and purple. Above and beyond the well will be seen a deep hole extending into the cliff.”

Thomas Quiller-Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall

“This well has Nature only for its architect, no mark of man’s hand being seen in its construction ; a pink enamelled basin, filled by drippings from the stalactitic roof, forms a picture of which it is difficult to describe the loveliness. What wonder, then, that the simple folk around should endow it with mystic virtues?”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndZoeriJKRM

Cures for children

Richard Polwhele, in his 1803 History of Cornwall states

“The virtues of the waters are, if taken inward, a notable vomit, or as a purgent. If applied outward, it presently strikes in, or dries up, all itch, scurf, dandriff, and such-like distempers in men or women. Numbers of persons in summer season frequent this place and waters from countries far distant. It is a petrifying well.” 

Further details are given by  John Cardell Oliver

“The legend respecting the well is, that in olden times mothers on Ascension Day brought their deformed or sickly children here, and dipped them in, at the same time passing them through the aperture connecting the two cisterns ; and thus, it is said, they became healed of their disease or deformity. It would seem that other classes also believed virtue to reside in its water; for it is said that the cripples were accustomed to leave their crutches in the hole at the head of the well.”

He adds:

“The virtues of this water are very great. It is incredible what numbers in summer season frequent this place and waters from counties far distant.”

Why is it St Cuthbert’s Well?

One account tells how Alchun, Bishop of Holy Island, Lindisfarne in 995 AD to take the body of previous bishop, St Cuthbert, to Ireland to escape Danish raiders. However, it is said that the weather drove them to the north coast of Cornwall where they were beached and settled at time and built a church at Cubert. They presumably rested at the cave and the relics touched the spring which then became holy and healing. After settling down in Cornwall, the Bishop and the relics finally set off to Durham where the saint was finally laid to rest.

This seems a fairly unlikely journey and a story made up by the ill-informed it would seem as the parish is named after St Cubert, an 8th century companion of St Carantoc, who came to convert the local pagans. What is interesting is that there are two holy wells in the parish. A more traditional chapel type being found on higher ground and I would hypothesis that this was constructed to sway local people from visiting the more primeval sea cave. Perhaps as that did not work local Christians applied the St Cuthbert story to the sea cave to attempt to finally push out the pagan connotations – the saintly name however still jars in this most primitive and ancient site.

Interestingly despite it being a wholly natural site it became a Scheduled Monument by Historic England in 2001