Category Archives: Rag well
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 However, there does not appear to be any folklore or historical reference to this activity at this site and it has probably been transferred by those in the know!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!
There are records of a considerable number of rag wells in Lincolnshire and as such a cluster can be identified. In a couple of posts we shall be exploring the sites focusing on some in detail such as the significantly named Ragged springs near Cleethorpes to the north of the county which is the focus on this blog post.
First it is worth considering the name. The springs themselves whilst possibly being an ancient site, noted by the fact that the earliest name for the parish is Heghelinge. One may make the assumption that perhaps this derives from the springs. However, this is at variance to the view of the Cameron (1985-2002) as it is noted that Hægelingas is derived from ‘the sons or followers of a man named Hægel’ rather than healing, although it is of course a strange coincidence perhaps.
The first reference appears to be Charles Edward Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells, which of course takes a number of sources, some hitherto unknown, but often from local accounts. He records it confusing under another nearby village and states?
“Lincolnshire GREAT COTES, ULCEBY. Here is a spring celebrated locally for its healing properties. It rises from the side of a bank in a plantation, and is overshadowed by an ancient thorn, on the branches of which hang innumerable rags, fastened there by those who have drunk of its waters.”
Gutch and Peacock (1908) note that a:
“Mr. Cordeaux visited them not long since for the purpose of discovering whether pins are ever dropped into them, but the bottom of the water in both cases was too muddy and full of leaves to allow accurate examination.”
According to Gutch and Peacock (1908) each well had a different use, one spring being a chalybeate one was done for eye problems, whereas the other was for skin problems. They continue to note that a:
“F S, a middle-aged man, who grew up in an adjoining parish, states that when he was a lad, one spring was used for bathing, and the second for drinking. The latter was considered good against consumption, among other forms of sickness. . . . What the special gift of the bathing well was F S cannot say. He often plunged his feet into it when a boy, but he does not venture to assert that it had any great power in reality, although ‘folks used to come for miles,’ and the gipsies, who called the place Ragged Spring or Ragged Well, frequently visited it. A Gentleman who hunts with the Yarborough pack every winter, says that he notices the rags fluttering on the shrubs and briars each season as he rides past. There is always a supply of these tatters, whether used superstitiously or not, and always has been since his father first knew the district some seventy years ago.”
The custom apparently continued until the 1940s, indeed a visitor in the 1920s noted that even the trunks were covered with longer pieces of rag. A picture in Healy (1995) shows a number of rags on the bushes as seen below.
It is worth noting that perhaps the presence of a large thorn perhaps suggests a great antiquity to the site The springs are still marked on the current OS map, as Healing Wells, in a small plantation, but they are, as the photo shows, only marked by circular indentations in the ground, the first spring being the easier to trace and appears to have holes, although these may be made by animals.
The springs are now quite dry, perhaps that the clogging of the springs noted above continued as the springs were forgotten, resulting in the current situation. Lying around the springs are a range of metal buckets in various stages of decay and some metal pieces which may be remains of a metal fence around it. I was unable to find any sign of rags although the man I asked in the whereabouts referred to them as the ragged springs. So there name maybe remembered even if the custom has long since been forgotten.
As a prelude to next year’s theme on votive offerings at holy and healing wells with a special focus on rag wells, for this abecedary entry W I have picked Wales and want to focus on rag wells in the country as an early prelude to my theme next year which is on rag or more often called cloottie wells.
The earliest confirmed reference is an English one of 1600 and evidence from Wales of their existence comes much later as nearly 300 years after the first accounts. What are we to make of this?
An account by Professor Rhys in Folklore for September, 1892 is the easiest reference and he is given the following information, said to be ‘lately sent to him by a friend, about a Glamorganshire holy well situated between Coychurch and Bridgeendd’ he notes.:—
“people suffering from any malady to dip a rag in the water, and bathe the affected part. The rag is then placed on a tree close to the well. When I passed it, about three years ago, there were hundreds of these shreds covering the tree, and some had evidently been placed there very recently.”
He was further informed that :
“People suffering from rheumatism. They bathe the part affected with water, and afterwards tie a piece of rag to the tree which overhangs the well. The rag is not put in the water at all, but is only put on the tree for luck. It is a stunted but very old tree, and is simply covered with rags.”
An interesting variant of the custom is recorded at Ffynnon Eilian (St. Elian’s Well), near Abergele in Denbighshire. Here Professor Rhys was informed by Mrs. Evans, the late wife of Canon Silvan Evans, who states that:
“some bushes near the well had once been covered with bits of rag left by those who frequented it. The rags used to be tied to the bushes by means of wool-not woollen yarn, but wool in its natural state. Corks with pins stuck in them were floating in the well when Mrs. Evans visited it, though the rags had apparently disappeared from the bushes.”
This may have been to do with the unfavourable nature of the well which was renowned as a cursing well. Recently restored it rags have yet to re-appear there!
Finally he records Ffynnon Cefn Lleithfan, or Well of the Lleithfan Ridge, on the eastern slope of Mynydd y Rhiw, in the parish of Bryncroes, in the west of Caernarvonshire, here:
“The wart is to be bathed at the well with a rag or clout, which has grease on it. The clout must then be carefully concealed beneath the stone at the mouth of the well.”
Which is yet again another variant possibly to do with the paucity of trees in the area
In an article in the Cardiff Naturalists Society (1935) by Aileen Fox, entitled “A Rag Well near Llancarfan” the spring called the Inflammation Spring she states that:
“When I first visited the spring in August, 1935, 3 old rags – pieces of dish cloth and calico – and a piece of brown wool were tied on overhanging branches by the source.”
And records that:
“The treatment described by Mrs Williams consisted in using the water for drinking to the exclusion of all other fluids, in applying mud from the source as a plaster on the affected parts, and in tying a rag, preferably from the underclothing, by the well.”
Distribution of the rag wells in the county is spread out with a small cluster in the south. Research and survey work indicates that there are eight traditional sites of which only three have a continued tradition, although it is difficult to describe or define the presence of rags there as continued or revived tradition without further research. Add to this only three sites which have no tradition but have no become rag wells. This latter category itself is a puzzle to define.
A recent visit to the atmospheric St. Pedr’s Well at Caswell Bay on the Gower did reveal rags and objects hanging from trees. However, the more traditional appearing was St. Teilo’s Well, Llandilo in Pembrokeshire where trees beside the pool filled by the spring were adorned with white and red fabrics of cloth and as such perhaps appears closer to the tradition than other sites such as St Anne’s Well, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, where a tree is adorned with a multitude of objects when it is not actively cleared up by local people. Why rags and objects should appear at St Tegla’s Well, Llandega, Denbighshire, or the Holy Well, Pileth, Powys or Patrishow’s holy well, Llanlawer is unclear. As sites which have received publicity in the earth mysteries and pagan press these rank pretty high. However, it is interesting to note that they are all close to the English border too. The origins of the custom in Wales similarly is difficult to determine. The widespread nature of the custom and it variant usage suggests possibly a wider distribution and the sites remaining are bar the remnants or that it arose individually in a number of places.
There is certainly an otherworldly feel to the woods of Alderley Edge. Unsurprisingly, it is a landscape which boasts three mysterious springs: the Holy Well, Wizard’s Well and the Wishing Well.Roeder and F. S. Graves in 1905s Recent archaeological discoveries at Alderley Edge by C Roeder and F S Graves, in the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society states:
“Well and the Holy Well. These, and especially the latter, were in ancient times connected with well-worship, and propitiatory offerings were made by people to the presiding deities, and also were frequently resorted to in Christian times, but doubtless the cult was observed here in much earlier days.”
They detail the cures and nature of the votive offers:
“Their healing powers were considered to be unfailing; the barren, the blind, the lame, and bodily-afflicted constantly made their way thither; maidens whispered their vows and prayers over them, their lovers and their future lives being their theme. Crooked silver coins were dropped into the well, but these have been cleared out long ago. At the present time the devotees are satisfied, in their economical habit, to offer mere pins and hairpins; the custom is not dead yet, for some of the immersed pins are still quite uncorroded and bright. Some of the sex deposit the pins in their straight and original form, others bend them only at right angle, and as many again seem to consider the charm alone to act effectively when carefully and conscientiously doubled up. Maidens of a more superficial cast just give the slightest twist to the object. To judge from the state of corrosion, and the old-fashioned thick, globular heads, some of these pins must have been in the well for at least sixty years. We have brought three cases to show the various forms into which the visitors have tortured the pins, and classified them into groups. There are occasionally to be seen also a few white pebbles in the two wells.”
The Holy Well
The Holy Well is first mentioned in an 1763 Court Rolls of Bollin Fee in a perambulation however its first written account is in Memoires of the Family of Finney, of Fulshaw, (near Wilmslow) Cheshire, by Samuel Finney of Fulshaw, Esquire’, in 1787. Which noted:
“Lower down the Hill, just below the Beacon, is a Spring of very clear Sweet Water, that issues pretty plentifully out of the Rock, called the Holy Well, which, no doubt, in times of Superstition, had its Virtues, which are now unknown, though many young people, in the Summer time, resort to it in parties, and regale themselves with this water, which is still supposed to have a prolific quality in it.”
Robert Bakewell’s 1843 Alderley Edge and Its Neighbourhood, who states:
“this well trickles in a constant stream from a cleft in a large rock about 60 yards below the Beacon… the waters of this well are said to be a cure for barrenness.”
Mystical author Alan Garner in his 1998 The Voice That Thunders: Essays and Lectures work tells us much of the site:
“Our water supply derived from the Holy Well, which granted wishes to tourists at weekends, and an income for the child of our family who, on a Monday morning, cleaned out the small change. Yet for no money would that child have climbed the yew that stood beside the well. “If I ever so much as see you touch that”, my grandfather had said, “I’ll have the hide off you”. And there was a memory that could hardly be restored to words: of how the well was not for wishing, but for the curing of barren women; and the offerings were of bent pins, not of pence.”
Interesting Garner notes:
“And Grandad spoke of rags tied to trees there. That had been a long time ago, he said.”
As such it is the only such recorded rag well in Cheshire/Staffordshire/Derbyshire area and perhaps was imported from Wales however the nearest traditional site would be over 100 miles away and as such it is an odd anomaly or evidence of a wider lost practice!
The Holy Well today
The Holy well is situated beneath a piece of rock filling an old stone trough set into the ground with a break at one end allowing its waters to flow out.
In the next post we shall explore the legend of the Wizard’s Well and the mysterious Wishing well.