Category Archives: Rag well
The clootie tree at St Euny’s Well
Cloutie tree near Madron Well
The cloutie tree near Madron Well
The cloutie tree near Madron Well
Sancreed Holy Well
St Credan’s Well, Sancreed
In 2016 I was invited to do a symposium on ritual litter. Before this I had been running a survey on Surveymonkey on the use of wells as sites of votive offerings focusing on rag wells. Below are some of the comments made by the correspondents which I believe would be useful to share here. They have been made anonymous in most cases separated from the sites they describe. Please note the survey is still live and the author welcomes more entries and also note do not use this research without express permission of the author.
What is left at wells and what did people think of it?
Asked what they thought about the subject of rag wells and giving of votive objects. They were asked about what should be left at such sites:
“I am very pleased to see the right sort of offerings ie red rags or ribbons, natural objects, degradable objects, bits of clothing, prayers written on paper etc that will degrade, as they keep the site and tradition alive, but plastic/junk etc crystals etc are not welcome. I know this is not a popular point of view. Perhaps we should all agree to leave 1-2 items only in our lifetime.”
Another correspondent reported:
“The type of offering is important. Natural (crystals, small metal objects) or genuinely degradable materials should be used. walk softly! And don’t leave stuff in the water”
Referring to a specific site another recorded:
“the offerings at Goodmanham are very controversial as they have tended recently to be non-degradable items. My own feeling is that this isn’t too much of a problem provided they are regularly tidied, and while not visually very tasteful they show that people are using the site.”
Of such offerings another stated:
“Because it is non biodegradeable it piles up and blows around causing damage and danger to wildlife.”
Of another site a correspondent noted:
“The wiccans of my acquaintance have now left the area, there is also a high church anglican who collects water there, I have never asked him if he leaves a votive token. THE water of the well, incidentally, is taken for all purposes still. Also the water is in current use in a mediaeval ink preparation AND is used to write mss.”
It was good to see a number of correspondent noting that the offerings
‘should be biodegradeable’ Others noted that they ‘Do dislike plastic items, should be compostable’, ‘I don’t mind biodegradable stuff i.e. flowers but not non biodegradable stuff i.e synthetic fabric’; ‘I don’t mind flowers, sticks, straw or genuine pieces of clothing. Object to plastic nylon and tissues!’ Concern for the fabric and nature of the site was also raised ‘Increasingly the offerings are plastic and unnatural, carving in the stone of the well defaces it, someone tried to scrub it out then causing further damage.’ Or ‘Some people feel too many offerings on one tree. Others feel they must be left as its offerings from people.’
Finally interestingly, another notes: ‘it is not something we should have an expectation on’
Why did they leave rags (or other offerings)?
A number of correspondents identified the reason they gave they left votives as: “An offering to the saint/goddess as recognition of their healing and knowledge” or to give thanks in some fashion ‘To honour and feed the land and spirit of place, to give thanks’; ‘To say thanks, to leave beauty’ ‘for thanks to Gaia’ or more specifically ‘Thanking the goddess for her waters’. Some saw it as simply as an ‘Offering to deity’ or ‘As a wish/blessing’. Correspondents identified that they were ‘Following ancient, spiritual beliefs.’
Respect was evident that some did it as a ‘mark of respect, replacing energy’ or to ‘respect for the Spirit Of The Place’
Energy figured in some views with one stating they ‘believe in the transferrence of positive energy’
Connection was stressed by a number of correspondents. It being done as a ‘symbol of my connection to the place’ or to ‘Giving a little of myself to the spirit of the place.’
Tradition was mentioned by a few correspondents one more specifically saying ‘Traditional to leave an offering when you visit a well’ or ‘to show respect to tradition, the ‘spirit’ of that place and as an offering.’
Some correspondents were more specific in their reasons. One stated that they:
‘Left one for the improved health of my husband’ or for ‘For people and animals who have passed on. Or are/have been ill’ or ‘To show my respect, and thanks for the safe arrival of my granddaughter’ or ‘It was a symbol of my Intention to help friends through illness.’
One final long comment mentioned:
“To give thanks for being alive, for being able to visit, for arriving safely, for the health and safety of those I love, for my continuing health, as an offering to the Gods, in gratitude for my life. Once, a few days after my wedding, I passed a red ribbon through my wedding ring three times and tied it to the tree(ribbon not ring) at Madron to bless my marriage. Once, in a time of real need, I left an offering at Fairy Well St Ives because I really needed a wish to come true. which it did.”
What would be interesting is how these compare to more ‘traditional’ uses of the wells and the custom. We shall be exploring this in the final post of this series
The Holy Well, Cranfield Co Antrim
The Eye Well
St Brigid’s Well: Loch Dearg
The Abbey Well
Tobernalt in Co. Sligo
“Do not leave rags” notices, St Malachy’s Well
A cursory check of the internet will show the perceived view of rag wells – most commonly called – clootie wells are that they are a Celtic pagan as summed up by the 21st century source of all information it seems Wikipedia:
“Clootie wells (also Cloutie or Cloughtie wells) are places of pilgrimage in Celtic areas.”
The online article goes on to list three sites in Scotland, Cornwall and Ireland – to emphasise this! However, the earliest recorded site is not only in England, but a fair distance from traditional Celtic homelands being on the north east in Yorkshire!
It is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner earliest reference is made to an association with a well. It describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that:
“they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts”.
Francis Grose in his 1773 The Antiquities of England and Wales also records that:
“Between the towns of Alten and Newton near the foot of Roseberrye Toppinge there is a well dedicated to St Oswald. The neighbours have an opinion that a shirt or shift taken off a sick person and thrown into that well, will show whether that person will recover or die; for if it floated it denoted the recovery of the party; if it sunk, there remained no hope of their life: and to reward the saint for his intelligence , they tear off a rag off the shirt and leave it hanging on the briars thereabouts: where I have seen such numbers as might have made a fayre rhime in a paper mill.”
However by Rev. John Graves 1808’s The History of Cleveland all mention of hanging rags appears forgotten or not known by the author who states that:
“Within the parish, at the northern extremity of Cliffrigg-Wood, and about two hundred paces to the eastward from Langbargh-Quarry, there is a copious spring of clear water, called Chapel-Well, which had formerly a bath &c. and was, till of late years, much resorted on the Sundays in the summer months by the youth of the neighbouring villages, who assembled to drink the simple beverage, and to join in a variety of rural diversions. But the harmlessness of this innocent recreation was at length destroyed by Spiritous liquors, furnished by the village-innkeepers: when the custom became discountenanced, and was soon after discontinued”
Yet when the Rev. George Young in his 1817 History of Whitby he does refer to the festivities but mentions the rags suggesting the custom was still concurrent:
“At the north end of Cliffrigg Wood, a little to the east of Langbargh quarry, is a copious spring, once the resort of superstition. It was supposed that when a shirt or shift was taken from a sick person and thrown into this well, the person would recover if it floated, but would die if it sunk. A rag of the shirt was torn off and hung on the bushes, as an offering to St Oswald, to whom the well was dedicated; and so numerous were the devotees, that, as an ancient writer states, the quantity of rags, suspended around the well, might have furnished material for a ream of paper. It is called Chapel Well, having once had a chapel, or cell, beside it, with a bath and other conveniences. As superstition is the handmaid of impiety, it is not surprising to find that a sunday fair was held here for many ages: this disgraceful nuisance is now happily removed.”
Perhaps the loss of the merrymaking resulted in a loss of the custom as when Frank Elgee visited in the 1930s noted in his 1957 A Man of the Moors, extracts from the Diaries and Letters of Frank Elgee (published in 1992) he described as:
“18 July 1936. “This evening we took the bus to Langbaurgh Quarries to examine the site an ancient Chapel and its sacred Well, which are close by…a spring flowing out of an iron pipe to meet a pool muddied by the feet of cattle”.
He had hoped to find fragments of the garments hung over the pool, in past times, as charms against disease, but was disappointed.
The site today?
A visit by Graeme Chapel on the Yorkshire holy well website noted that:
“The site of this once famous well is located just to the north of Great Ayton village, in a small fenced off area at the edge of a grassy field. Today the well is a wet boggy area at the foot of a Hawthorn bush (dead?). The wells healing waters appear to have had chalybeate properties, as orange-red deposits are still visible on the boggy surface of the spring, unfortunately the spring head is now so choked that the waters seep away instead of flowing along its former drainage channel. However probing through the mud reveals what may be a paved or cobbled area in front of the spring.
Finding the exact site was a bit of a challenge. Despite being marked on the old OS maps and guidance: a couple of sites appeared to suggest to be the exact one. Sadly it was completely forgotten – no rags and not even any water – but the indication of a dead hawthorn and a soft soil suggests the correct site. No sign of any pavement except some stones nearby and no chalybeate water! Unfortunately, it was largely inaccessible being surrounded by barbed wire! However, archaeologically it would sound that may would possibly be some significant remains hereabouts – not only a well, but a bath and suggestive by the name a chapel perhaps?
Graeme Chapel’s excellent Yorkshire holy well continues:
The well lies on the parish boundary between Great Ayton and Guisborough, while to the west of the well a little used single track railway line lies a little too close for comfort, but the view to the east is dominated by the mountain-like peak of Roseberry Topping (anciently called Odinsberg) where legend has it, Oswy, the young son of king Oswald, drowned in the Odinsbery spring high up on the hill top.
A footpath leading up to the summit passes near to the well and it is possible the two places were connected in local tradition.”
Now the Odinsbery spring has often been confused with the chapel well and as Chapel notes it seems likely the two were linked. The legends associated with this site deserve a full exploration but what is interesting is that Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells records a version of the legend of Oswy, the ill-fated drowned son of Oswald:
“strolling out one day with her child, they met a party of gipsies, who were anxious to tell her the child’s fortune. After being much importuned, she assented to their request. To the mother’s astonishment and grief they prognosticated that the child would be drowned.”
Why do I make reference to this? Well one of my theories about rag wells is their association with the travelling community and although this does not explicitly mention the well it suggests that gypsies were found in the area. Indeed I saw several traditional pony and trap and caravans in the area. However, it is clear that everyone has forgotten this spring!
Last month I introduced the rag wells associated with Lincolnshire we now move southwards to explore the other sites.
At the significantly named Hemswell are the seven springs apparently rise from the spring wells and one of these is dedicated to St Helen’s Well (SK 932 911). The site has an eerie but not unquiet atmosphere. The proximity of a local stone called the Devil’s pulpit may help this of course. It is a large approximately six foot high piece of sandstone under which a small spring arises. This Ian Thompson (1999) Lincolnshire Wells and Springs notes local opinion thought was St. Helen’s, he said it tasted sweeten than the other waters (a fact that I cannot testify as the spring has appeared to have almost dried up the year I went). Peter Binnall (1845) in his theories on eye wells notes that the spring wells were regarded as possessing curative powers and rags were hung on the surrounding bushes. The dedication of St Helen is an interesting one of course and just within the main area. Jeremy Harte’s 2008 English Holy Wells suggests that the name is spurious and that Ethel Rudkin (1936) Lincolnshire Folklore does not refer to it as such, however in support of the view I had no problem locally detecting the well using this name in the village (incidentally Harte makes an error referring to the springs as Aisthorpe Springs, these are clearly another site). There was supposed to be a chapel or church associated with the site, of which there is no trace or record. There was no evidence of any rags on any of the trees and the only thing hanging was a rope for a tyre swing!
Not far away and still surviving are the Aisthorpe springs (SK 956 899) a curative spring and a rag well, despite what Thompson (1999) notes is not now incorporated into a sewage farm, although this is nearby. The spring arises with some force near by the footpath which passes towards the sewage farm and has a separate flow from that of the plant. The spring flows from a pipe beneath some thorn bushes, sadly without any sign of rags.
To the east is Holton cum Beckering were to the east of Holton Hall was a Rag Well according to Lincolnshire Notes and Queries which was said to have had some medicinal qualities, however recent correspondence with local vicar has shown that there is now no local knowledge of this well. The only evidence was a local name for a field to the south of the town known as Well Walk. There is a spring fed pool in churchyard but no traditions are given concerning this. It is possible perhaps that this is the same site as the Wishing Well at Nettleton.
Here at Nettleton, the Wishing well which is records as being half mile from church, east of the grange on land belonging to Holton Park hence the possible confusion with above. Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock (1908) Lincolnshire County Folklore note that:
“It was famous for its curative virtues, and thither many of the afflicted, until very recently, if not now, were wont to make a pilgrimage. A thorn tree grew over the well, which used to be covered with votive offerings, chiefly bits of rag, the understood condition to any benefit being that whoever partook of the water should ‘leave something.’ The thorn tree, however, is now cut down.”
Again no local people could determine the existence of this site and nothing is marked on maps.
Kingerby Spa (TF 045 914) whose name first appears in 1824 as the site of a Chalybeate spring might seem an unusual place for a rag well but it is an old site. In Lincolnshire notes and queries state that large numbers of coins dating back to Elizabeth I, were dredged from the pool. Records tell that in 1900, pins and coins were found nearby, and the thorn rags were full of rags. Mr Wilkinson states that it became popular in Victorian times as a place to go for the healing waters and he had seen a photo of the spring with strips of cloth fastened to the bushes surrounding the spring but could not locate it. He believed it fell out of popularity after the turn of the century, and suggested that the landowner was against people tramping over his land to reach it. However, as late as the 1990s, that the then owner was thinking of selling the waters. Mr. Wilkinson also noted that last time he saw the spa it resembled a pipe discharging into a dyke. This is at variance to Pastscape, which notes that the site consists of a small oval shaped isolated pool which has three courses of narrow brickwork forming a semi-circular rim with another brick course and a coping stone set into the side of the hollow suggesting that was a well house. Despite appearing to exist as a small pool on both the current O/S and Google maps; recent field work failed to reveal it. The site would appear to have either dried up or purposely filled in. Field train channels were nearby. This was despite being described on the parish map outside the church, although interestingly this revealed itself to be in another location to that noted on the map so maybe I was pixy led.
The last traditional site is the chalybeate Blind Well (TF 085 208) on the edge to Bourne Wood is the furthest south rag well. However, there are no signs of rags now. Its water was used to cure eye complaints and sold in Bourne Market. It is now rather neglected being rather weed filled and untidy surrounded by a rather ugly wooden frame.
Thus completes the traditional rag wells but as I have eluded to before what is interesting is the site called Lud’s Well (TF 176 937) at Stainton Le Vale. The evocative site is a spring which arises in a small cave like structure and fills a small pool. When I saw it in the summer it was a bit dry but apparently it forms a small waterfall according to local sources. I learnt of the site from Thompson’s 1999 work and when visited did not see any sign of ribbons. Now this is the county’s only rag well. This can be seen from this screenshot from a recent video visiting the site. Why?
The origin of the name may suggest why. Although it is believed to come from O.E Hlud meaning ‘loud’ others prefer to believe it is derived from Celtic deity Lud, this however is unlikely. Thus it seems very likely that the site has been adopted by the local pagan community who have adopted the attaching of ribbons as a pagan gesture.
So why. Such a cluster as far east as it is as possible to go puts in question the idea that the custom is strongly Celtic in origin perhaps. So why in Lincolnshire. A theory I discuss in my working thesis on the work is that the custom was brought by gypsy communities who had a stronghold in the county. However, why these particular springs is unclear perhaps like Winterton, Hemswell, Aisthorpe, Healing they were close to main roads – we cannot state this in the case of the lost sites of course.
What is interesting is how quickly the custom died out in the county and one wonders whether this is correlated by the reduction in gypsy numbers as well.
In April I examined a well know rag well but as research for my Holy wells and Healing Springs of Lincolnshire regards the county is a hot bed for rag wells. In this first part I will examine those found in the far north of the county
Perhaps the oldest account of such a rag well is that associated with the Holy Well at Winterton not far from the ragged springs at Healing. Winterton’s Holy Well (SE 944 178) was undoubtedly an ancient one, recorded as the fieldnames as 13th Century Haliuel, c.1200, Haliwelle Daile, early 13th century and gives its name to Holy Well Dale on road to Appleby. The earliest account by a Mr Joseph Fowler, of Winterton, who was born in the year 1791, remembered people who had seen rags on the bushes near. Andrew (1836) notes:
“There are excellent springs about Winterton, one of which, lying in a field eastward of the town, called “the Holy-well Dale”, has the property of petrifying vegetable matter”
Edward Peacock, 1877), A Glossary of Words Used in the Wapentakes of Manley and Corringham, Lincolnshire, English Dialect Society 15 which describes it as accounted useful in the cure of many sorts of sickness. Fowler (1908) notes that:
“an old lady of eighty-one years tells me of how people frequented that spring, hung fragments of linen or cloth or ribbon on the hedge or bushes near, and took its healing water away in bottles.”
Charles Edward Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells takes a number of sources, some hitherto unknown. These are:
“WINTERTON : HOLY WELL DALE. There is a spring at Holy Well Dale, near Winterton, in North Lincolnshire, formerly celebrated for its healing properties; and the bushes around used to be hung with rags.
Sadly this is a site which despite still being marked on the current OS has apparently been recently removed in the last 15 years by drainage. The fate of the well emphasizes the need for preservation of such sites. In a report by Pastscape, they note that Mr. Herring, a local farmer indicated this spring on the ground at and said it ran following rain. They noted more modern piped spring nearby probably accounts for the mainly dry state of the old spring. It is interesting that in Hilary Healey (1995a), Lincolnshire holy wells in Lincs. P & P 19 pp. 3–6. they record the attachment of a rag to a nearby signpost.
Nearer to Scunthorpe at Bottesford is a site which has been discussed before on this blog by Ian Thompson under his examination of the Templar’s Bath nearby. Near the church is St John’s Well, a grade II listed approximately five foot high stone and brick well house, whose spring arises in the garden above it and flows towards the wall where the well is situated. Its masonry is mainly of Victorian date with possible older stones. A fairly recent gate is set across the entry but one can still peer inside to see the water inside in its sunken trough, although the actual well which is said to be eight feet deep is inaccessible in the garden of St. John’s House as noted. Locally I have heard it called St. John’s Ragwell but no authority can justify it but I would suggest that as its rag well and not clootie well it is probably authentic.
One of the most intriguing rag well is to be found to the north east of the village of Utterby along Holywell Lane. It is simply called the Holy Well (TF 317 937) and here it is said that coins were dropped and it was formerly a rag-well of great repute for its medicinal qualities. Peacock (1895) notes quoting White’s directory that:
“The surrounding bushes used to be tufted over with tatters left by people who visited it to benefit by its waters. Three or four years ago, if not later, remnants of clothing might still be seen on the shrubs. Persons yet living have taken their children to this well, and, after sprinkling them with water, have dropped a penny into it for good luck.”
This would appear to be the same site which Cordeaux, J., (1876), Anatolian folk-lore, Notes & Queries describes as a rag well near Great Cotes, Ulceby.
The springs appear on the first 6” O/S map as Holy Well (chalybeate) and remained until 1951 edition, when it disappeared. Thorogold and Yates in the Shell Guide of Lincolnshire (1965) describe it as a holy well full of sticks in a spinney. A correspondent to Collins (2011) called Steve, notes of the site:
“Finding it amongst the dense thorn bushes is another thing, dowsing helped me locate it back in the early 1990’s. I cleared out a 6 foot deep hollow many leaves and cans etc. and it was very dry. I returned about 6 months later to find it full of bubbling red rich water….”
When researching the site for Holy wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire I could not find any evidence of a site. Indeed the site according to the Utterby Heritage group is now is dry and rather overgrown, hidden and no longer traceable. A return visit in early December always a good time to search for holy wells enabled me to get into the thicket and despite some promising hollows I could not claim to have found the exact site. However, clearly someone in the Utterby group know the exact location as they stated there would be a plan to restore the site at some time in the future.
In the next instalment we shall travel southwards and explore why rag wells are prevalent in Lincolnshire
St Kenelm’s Well is not a tradition rag well location (although there is circumstantial evidence of the custom in Worcestershire) and the nature of the clooties left suggest a pagan association perhaps. Below is a photo archive of a visit in 2011.
Prayer flags at the well
Ribbons, bells and fake flowers the most common cloottie
Some more traditional cotton handkerchiefs
Found down a quiet lane, called Plemstall Lane near the church, is this well named after 9th century saint and Archbishop of Canterbury. The earliest record of the well is in 1302 but doubtlessly the settlement itself derived from Plemstow and supposedly where the saint lived a hermit life on a supposed island on which the church now stands, the spring arising at the base of its cliff. Plemstall taking its name from the saint.
Who was St Plegmund?
Rotha Mary Clay in her 1914 Hermit and anchorites of England states that Plegmund, an Eremite (lived) in the Isle of Chester’. He rose to a position of high office, being promoted Prinate of all England during King Alfred 871-899 AD being a learned individual noted for his writings and translations. He travelled to Rome to be consecrated the 19th Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Formosus. Following the death of King Alfred, Plegmund crowned Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder. He continued to be Archbishop of Canterbury until his death in 923 AD and is buried in Canterbury Cathedral. There is no evidence of his association with the well as sadly, the earliest reference to the well is a 1301 quit rent.
The well today
The present structure was erected by Mr Osborne Aldis in 1907 is curbed with stones with steps down to the water. The site was dedicated by the Venerable E. Barber, Archdeacon of Chester, on 11 November 1907. A Latin couplet was placed on the stone supposedly reading:
“Here, as in days when Alfred erst was King, Baptismal water flows from Plegmund’s spring.”
Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews reported that in 1995 a survey of the well was carried out. This failed to find the slabs in added in 1907 but revealed that the well was a square stone-lined pit which had on either side two large slabs. The bottom of the well was a ceramic pipe inserted at a later date and there was water covering the first step as there was when I first visited. In 2002 a substantial wrought iron structure bearing the saint’s name and date was erected making the site easy to find.
As noted by the signage, site was supposedly used for baptisms and was called the church well or Christening well, and is mentioned in Churchwardens’ accounts, although this may be another well. In the 1990s rags, or clootties, have been placed around the site, and attached to a hawthorn overhanging the tree. However, there does not appear to be any folklore or historical reference to this activity at this site and it has probably been transferred by those in the know! However, there is a tradition of hanging rags at Alderley Edge in the same county so it may be traditional. According to Richards (1947), that:
“on Sunday, August 14th, 1938, the Saint’s Day, a large body of Roman Catholics made a pilgrimage on foot to the well.”
This was probably started by the curate at St Werburgh’s Chester at the time, Canon Frank Murphy. Canon Frank Murphy was clearly highly devoted to the saint, the church had stained glass windows of St Plegmund and the church hall opened by the Canon in 1971 is also dedicated to him and has stained glass featuring him. Curates Frs Gerry Courell and Peter Sharrocks in the 1970s, remember that there was an annual pilgrimage to the well from St Werburgh’s probably from the time Canon Murphy returned as the parish priest in 1959. When it ceased is unclear although in the late 1990s, Chester City Council archaeologists lead local children on a well dressing walk on the 2nd of August St Plegmund’s feast day. The children on arrival would informally dress the well inspired by the rags hanging nearby. This is said to have ceased in 2000,but according to stcolumbachester.wordpress.com a pilgrimage returned in 2016, The website states:
“On 11 Sept 2016, Fr Jonathan together with 11 parishioners representing 3 generations of St Columba’s and St Theresa’s parishes, revived the tradition of walking to the nearby well of St Plegmund. It was a lovely warm sunny day for the 3.6 mile walk which is now mostly along the Millennium Greenway. We said prayers at the well and were then welcomed with tea and chocolate biscuits by Mike, the verger to St Peter’s at Plemstall where we were impressed by the carvings mostly done by the Rev Toogood in the last century. There followed a picnic in the historic graveyard before a leisurely walk back to St Columba’s.”
Now since 2000 a Peak District style well dressing has been undertaken. Cheshire-Live website notes:
“THE annual tradition of well dressing is taking place in a Cheshire village this weekend. Volunteers in Mickle Trafford have been preparing the well dressing in the scout hut on School Lane in readiness for the blessing of St Plegmund’s Well ceremony on Sunday. Helpers include efforts by the Village Well Dressing Group, Mickle Trafford Primary School pupils and the Cestrian Scouts group. They have been providing decorations for the well and will transport their completed display from the scout hut to the well on Saturday in preparation for the ceremony. Only natural materials are permitted to be used within the display. The blessing of the well ceremony was originally intended to mark the new millennium but proved so successful it was decided to make the occasion an annual tradition. This year’s theme for the well is astronomy, with previous years’ displays based upon Alice in Wonderland, Hogwart’s Express and Creatures Great and Small.”
Themes varied from Royal Britannia to although this appears to have died out in 2010.
Sadly, no water flows through the well now said to be the result of a nearby Shell plant lowered the water table, but it clearly continues to be celebrated locally and provide a local connection to the age of saints. It is nice to hear of a village remembering its name’s original connection
A fragment of cream coloured cloth is a curious exhibit piece at Oxford Universities’ Pitt Rivers museum. It states:
“Votive rags from St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch near Boston Spa, West Yorkshire 1884.140.331 is an example of the votive rags that were tied to a tree near a well.”
Interestingly it also notes:
“Oddly this item was not accessioned into the Pitt Rivers Museum collections until the 1990s though it had lain in the museum for over a hundred years by then.”
This rag is perhaps unique being the only museum example of a rag taken from a rag well (considering the folklore associated with such sites I would be interested what happened to the collector). It is fitting to have this record of one of the countries most famed rag wells. For outside the famed Clootie Well and Madron Well, St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch is perhaps the most famed rag well; one which today only a memory survives perhaps –and this acquisition is interestingly the earliest reference to the site. The earliest published reference is in A Thousand miles in Wharfedale by Edmund Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm.”
A gewgaw would appear to refer to rags as the dictionary definition being a showy thing, especially one that is useless or worthless. A term which has largely fallen out of usage since the Victorian times.
Our next reference is Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells. He explicitly now refers to rags, as he notes that:
“It was usual for those who consulted the oracle at this well to make an offering there of a scrap of cloth. This was fastened to an adjoining thorn, which, being literally covered with pieces of, rag, presented a peculiar appearance.”
Harry Speight (1902) Lower Wharfedale visited St. Helen’s Well he notes in reference to a cross:
“This interesting relic of the ancient faith was discovered here, hidden among brushwood near the celebrated spring which bears St. Helen’s name. Whitaker thinks that the distinguished lady had crossed the ford of Wharfe, and that in all probability she had drank at this well, which for centuries afterwards became a very popular resort of religious votaries, particularly from the vicinity of York. Subsequently a chapel was erected on the spot, which was standing in Leland’s time, but the Reformation did away with most of these wayside oratories, and not a stone now remains.
He description of the rag custom seems to suggest it was by his time in abeyance:
Such, however, was the fascination of this time-honoured spot, that down even to our own time pilgrimages continued to be made to the holy fountain, and bits of metal or pins were thrown into the water, or ribbons were attached to the adjoining bushes (as many as forty or fifty have been seen within living memory), in propitiation of the good cause of St. Helen and Christianity. The water is beautifully soft and clear, and in former times was much resorted to as a specific for sore or weak eyes.”
By the time that C.N. Bromehead wrote an article entitled ‘Rag Wells,’ in Antiquity IX, March 1935 he visited the well he recorded that:
“There is now no well or visible spring, but from the position at the lower margin of a gravel terrace it is obvious that water would be obtained by digging a few feet; a small stream flows just east of the site.”
Yet despite its lost he noted that:
“It is curious that the hanging of rags should survive when the actual well has vanished, but the writer has visited the spot many times in the last seven years and there are always plenty of obviously recent additions. The custom is to stand facing the well (i.e., due west), preferably after sunset, wish, and then attach something torn from one’s clothing either to the big tree — wych elm — or to any of the bushes.”
Like a precursor of the lovelocks folk craze now current everywhere the author then continues to observe:
“Probably the custom is largely maintained by vagrants who frequently camp in the wood, but it also has its attraction for courting couples from the neighbouring villages!”
Certainly the final nail in the coffin was in 1940 when a munitions factory called ROF Thorp Arch was opened following compulsory purchase of the land. This made St Helen’s Lane and the Rag Well out of bounds until 1958 when the site was closed. According to Pastscape historical record that in 1958 it recorded:
“St. Helen’s Well (a Votive or Rag Well) still used as such. The Well, now dry and overgrown, has no associated masonry, and appears to have been a simple spring.”
This appears to be to the contra of the fact the munitions factory had emasculated the custom. Yet it was doubtless on the way out for by 1963, this entry had been updated to read:
“There are no visible remains of the chapel, but the contour of the ground in the vicinity of the well, suggests a natural hillock at SE 45134583 as the probable site.
However even in the 2000s ribbons could still be seen in the vicinity but whether these were placed by locals seeking a cure or local pagans keen to continue the tradition is unclear but it is interestingly that one of the most famous English rag wells lives on. I only wish that those who had attached the current rags were aware of the that original in Oxford and ensured that their examples were cotton based!