Category Archives: Saints
One of south Wales’s most evocative and peaceful holy well is that of St Anthony’s Well in Llansteffan. One approaches the site by a path that leads from the castle site down to the beach.
Why St Anthony?
A fair few Welsh holy wells are dedicated to their local holy people but this one is dedicated to St Anthony. However, this still underlines its association with hermits as titular saint is St Anthony of Egypt who in around 251-356 AD was believed to be the first Christian hermit. Like modern day Catholics who take a saintly name at confirmation Celtic holy people would adopt names which had a spiritual significance. Thus locally this hermit was called Antwn; a Welsh form of Anthony who is said to have lived here in the sixth century. The plaque on the wall of the well records:
“Little St Anthony’s Well is barely large enough to get your hand inside for a drink of water. But you must wait patiently for the clear drops to seep from the mossy recess in the hillside.”
Chris J Thomas in his 2004 Sacred Welsh Wales describes it as cold and bland so it may not be worth the wait.
It is recorded that in 1811 existing stonework has been built around the natural spring in the form of a pointed arch with an offerings shelf at the back. A small recess above the shelf is where a statue of the saint was reputedly placed. Now there is an icon of the saint. Prayer flags festoon the area as well.
In more modern times the surrounding area has been rather heavily improved with extra retaining walls and a paved forecourt. It is now described as a Grade II listed site is describe as having a well chamber set within a triangular-headed recess into the southwest facing wall of the enclosure and above it are two stone shelves and a carved niche. Above it is a relief carving, presumably of Antwn, is on the rear wall of the enclosure
The shelf is full of cockle shells -and some other small votives and it is apparent that the tradition is alive and well. However, I am unaware of why they are doing so.
A hermit’s well
So this was a hermit’s well which suggests in the location there was a hermitage or at least a site of refuge. A suggested site is a cave further down the bay shaped similarly to the well arch – however there is no evidence.
Local tradition suggests that he used the water to baptise local people It is still a site of pilgrimage. Paul Davis 2003’s Sacred Springs: In Search of the Holy Wells and Spas of Wales notes that:
“frequented by lovesick travellers intent on casting a pin into the well to fulfil their hearts desires.”
Thomas (2004) notes:
“Pilgrims still visit this well for their own secret purposes, the most prevalent of which is for ‘wishing’. Romantic aspirations and reparations are what St Anthony’s Well is best at, apparently. You must be totally alone, offer a small white stone and wish very sincerely. There ae no known statistics regarding its success rate.”
It is not difficult to see why this site would not be in anyone’s top 10 of sites – the seaside location, its secretive enclosure and the sweeping gardens and sylvanian setting surrounding it mean it would be easy to spend a few hours in solitude listening to the dripping water and the sounds of the waves. A more peaceful place would be hard to find.
In part one we discussed the famed King’s Well in this second part we explore three possible sites which are possibly all one site notwithstanding the possibility that one is completely made up.
The most curious one to disentangle is St. Claridge’s Well Our sole source is Charles Lamb more of which in moment who claims it is described in the Black Book of St Albans although I could not find it there. In a letter to Charles Cowden Clark in 1828 he records that saint would entertain angels and hermits for the blessing of the water, who sat of mossy stones called Claridge Covers.
Who is St Claridge?
St. Claridge may have been another name for Sigur, who was a hermit who lived in Northaw Woods. Mrs Fox-Wilson in her 1927 Notes on Northaw and district in the East Hertfordshire Archaeological society journal records that the hermit built a cell near a well of pure water in Berevenue forest. This is recorded in Gesta Abbotum Mon Sci Albani 1 105 (1119-1149), dating it around the 12th Century. There is accordingly, a tomb in St. Alban’s Abbey which reads: “Vir Domini verus jacet hic hermeita Regerus et sub eo clarus meritus hermita Sigarus.”
Where was the well?
The exact location of the above is not clear, it is hinted to the south east of the church by Lamb but if he was travelling from Buntingford, it would appear to be the same as Griffin’s Hole which lays in Well Wood, a small private part of the Great Wood. A footpath from Well Road leads directly to the well and nowhere else, which suggests a great past importance for the site being the main supply for the village. This path appeared to have been recently re-opened, and the well itself has been repaired. The site consists of a roughly square pool of muddy water with an edging of old red bricks, possibly Tudor. A fence of rhododendrons has been erected around the site to prevent people falling in, but it does not deflect from the mysteriousness of the site: which is very odd and eerie. Today a metal frame is placed over it which makes it less evocative I would say. However, is it the St Claridge’s Well of Lamb?
The letter Charles Lamb wrote may help locate it as he appears to have encountered the well on a four hour walk to “the willow and lavender plantations to the south-east of Northaw Church.” However, this is confusing as it would appear to suggest that the well is to the south-east but that depends on where he was travelling from! He is known to have visited Buntingford. He refers to Claridge’s covers:
“Clumps of the finest moss rising hillock fashion, I counted to the number of two hundred and sixty…not a sweeter spot is in ten counties around”.
Some authors suggest that the name is some sort of joke, this note withstanding, Fox Wilson states that this site was called John’s Hole, and that in the 1920s requests were still made to the landowner for the water as it cured rheumatism.
Unfortunately I have been unable to find out why the site is called the Griffin’s Hole (one assumes it is a personal name) or whether it is indeed The Hermit’s Well, John’s Hole or St. Claridge’s Well in the 10 years on since publication. However I do feel that this is at least the John’s Hole site if not St. Claridge’s Well
First noted by P.F.S Amery in his 1882 Old Ashburton: Being Recollections of Master Robert Prideaux, (Attorney-at-Law) 1509–1569 as:
‘Gulwell, a short distance down the Totnes road, in the corner of the vicar’s glebe field, which was called after St Gudula, the ancient patroness of blind folk. A stone cross… stood by… The tall stone still gives the name of Stone Park to the vicar’s field’.
St Gudula’s is one of the best known of Devonshire wells but whether it is a holy well or back derivation of its name is a matter of discussion as well shall discuss.
Who was St Gudula?
The most likely source recommended by Sabine Baring-Gould in his 1899–1902 A Book of the West is a little known 6th century Celtic evangelist who is claimed to have converted Brittany called St. Gudwal as Terry Faull, 2004 Secrets of the Hidden source, emphatically states:
“local interpretation of St. Gulwell who is also known as St. Wulvella, and was sister of Saint Sidwell of Exeter. They are claimed to have been the daughter of royalty being probably born in Wales.”
However, the site is dedicate to St Gudula who was born in Hamme, Flanders in around AD 648 and was associated with healing the blind. This appears to be what the plaque at the well claims:
‘This Well, The Waters Of Which Are Said To Be Good For Weak Eyes, Was Dedicated To St Gudula, The Ancient Patroness Of The Blind. The Cross (Probably 14th Century) Was Removed Prior To 1510. It Was Restored, Re-Erected, And Presented To The Parish Of Ashburton, 1933’.
However, this seems very unlikely and it would be more reasonable to assume that some learned antiquarian, probably Amery, has associated the saint with the site due to its name and properties – the name is being more likely be descriptive about it forming a gully.
The origins of the cross
William Crossing in his 1902, The Ancient Stone Crosses of Dartmoor and its Borderland, says:
‘we shall not find the cross here, but at a farm a little further on, which bears the same name as the well… This consists of the shaft only, and… I learnt in 1892 from the late Mr Perry, the owner of Gulwell, who was then eighty-three years of age, that it was in its present situation in the time of his grandfather’
Even more confusing is that there is a well at Gulwell Farm and it is possible that this the real site especially if we re-read what Crossing states he suggests that the cross was brought from another site. “and if it really was brought from the spring it must be long ago”, does that suggest that someone decided to transfer the site to another spring and to emphasise it move the cross! Faull (2004) states it was returned to its original site in 1933 as noted by the plaque of course.
The current situation
Even more confusing is that there is a well at Gulwell Farm and it is possible that this the real site especially if we re-read what Crossing states he suggests that the cross was brought from another site. “and if it really was brought from the spring it must be long ago”, does that suggest that someone decided to transfer the site to another spring and to emphasise it move the cross! Faull (2004) states it was returned to its original site in 1933 as noted by the plaque of course as noted by the 10th March 1933 Western Times. It recorded that it was re-erected by some unemployed men after being recovered from the location where it had been for several generations. It also notes at the same time it was planned to restore the well but there was not enough money available.
Sometimes holy wells turn up in odd locations and the survival of a site in a very urban cityscape shows how such sites can survive despite the predations! For in the church is a pump which draws its water from the newly discovered spring found in the boiler house said to be St. Mary’s Well associated with a shrine to the Blessed Virgin or Black Virgin of Willesden. The origin of the shrine is unknown, but the first mention of a statue occurs in 1249, when an inventory of church goods mentions two large sculptured images of Our Lady. Legend has it that the shrine originated due to an appearance of Our Lady Mary in the Churchyard.
The celebrated black image of Our Lady was a centre of pilgrimage until its destruction at the Reformation. In 1535 the statue was torn down and taken to Chelsea and publicly burned on the same fire as the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. Consequently, Henry VIII imposed a fine on the ‘idolatrous’ Church to be paid every year by the Priest and indeed it is clear that interest in the shrine did not wane at the destruction of the image. It is noted that a vision of the Holy Trinity was seen by a Dr. Crewkerne who in a conversation in with Our Lady, telling him to preach abroad and that she wished to be honoured at Ipswich and Willesden, as she had been once before. A restoration never happened during this period however. However, when Fr. James Dixon became Vicar in 1902, he restored the shrine and a statue of Mary and Jesus was placed in the Chancel and devotion to the shrine has been encouraged. In 1972 a new statue was made and pleased by the Bishop of London on the feast of Corpus Christi.
Of the well, J.T Gillet’s 1964 The History of Willesden notes that:
“There is a distant tradition that Our Lady appeared in an oak tree in the churchyard to a client, and that a well began to flow, at which miracles were wrought and which became noted for cures from blindness. The well was used until comparatively recent times, but then it was condemned as ‘unsanitary’ and was covered over.”
Jeremy Harte in his 2008 English Holy Wells notes that the tradition also appears to date to 1885, and was thus probably propaganda set up by a Catholic mission was set up to revive the mediaeval Marian shrine at Willesden, although the VCH (1969–2004) take it as evidence that:
‘the church was built on the site of a holy well possibly that which gives the settlement its name, first recorded in 939 by King Athelstan.’
An alternative tradition is recorded by John Norden in 1596. Norden (1723) Speculum Britanniæ: an historical and chorographical description of Middlesex and Hartfordshire which notes in relation to Alderman Roe’s a:
“springe of faire water, which is now within the compass of house”.
However of course this does not stipulate that this is a holy well nor the exact spring. Similarly, it is likely to refer to Willesden from the Anglo-Saxon Wiell-dun – hill of springs as noted in Nicholas Schofield’s 2002 Our Lady of Willesden, a brief history of the Shrine and Parish who also state
This is said to have been associated with pilgrimages to the Virgin’s shrine. The church website notes that:
“The water from the well is used extensively to this day, for Baptisms, anointing and mixing with the wine in the Chalice. On Saturday 4 July 1998, at the Annual Willesden Pilgrimage, a new Holy Well was dedicated enabling the healing Waters of Willesden to flow freely at St. Mary’s. The waters are available to be used in Church and to be taken away.”
Interestingly Foord appears to describe it as:
“in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water, upon a king of Scots, who being strangely diseased, was by some devine intelligence, advised to take the water of a Well in England, called Muswell, which after long scrutation, and inquisition, this Well was found and performed the cure’. Later this king was identified as Robert the Bruce (the Bruces held land nearby), and the illness was held to be leprosy.”
However is this another site?
The well is although described as now surmounted with a pump within the church, this appears to have gone and now a demijohn of water is found in the Lady Chapel. Apparently the source was rediscovered in 1998 but access cannot be granted.
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.
Why dangerous? St Anne’s Well lies along probably the busiest road of any holy well and thus is difficult to reach safely, and despite being along a road it is easy to miss often being full of litter.
The name St Anne’s Well appears on the 1830 OS map and the parish church is also dedicated to St Anne. It is worth noting that the cult of St. Ann was a later one, arriving in the 14th century. Perhaps E. Mardon’s 1857, ‘Rambles around Bristol’, in the Bristol Magazine and West of England Monthly Review 1 who also has the earliest written record has another origin for its name. For they describe it as:
“the once celebrated medicinal spring, of whose waters Queen Anne used to drink, visiting the village for that purpose.”
Was a then dedicated to Queen Anne and later this was misinterpreted as St Anne? Or vica versa. The reverse seems more likely as it seems odd that the Queen would have visited and the association of her name may be evidence of some attempt to de- Christianise and secularise the spring post-Reformation. Mardon (1857) also records:
“It would appear from the plaque affixed to the spring, that the villagers, in 1790, in grateful remembrance of past honours, named the waters ‘‘Saint Anne’s Well‘’, and the bridge a little further on ‘‘Saint Anne’s Bridge‘”
When R.C. Skyring Walters in 1928 in his The Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of Gloucestershire: Their Legends, History and Topography he noted that on his visit this plaque had been stolen. However, when I visited in the site in the early 1990s, there was a green sign denoting it, but upon my visit it too was lost in the hedge. He described it as:
“a stone trough at ground level, 4ft 6in by 2ft, which is divided in a curious manner into two unequal parts… There is a high stone wall behind the trough. Until about two years ago there was an iron plate, bearing the inscription “St Anne’s Well”… Water from the well… was well-known throughout the parish of Pucklechurch for its excellent properties as an eye lotion.”
Being divided into an unusual manner Skyring Walters believed that the smallest part for a puppy the larger for a mature dog?! Presently it contains very murky water and is perhaps in need of some restoration and protection. The last time it was restored properly may have been recorded by Dorothy Vintner in her 1966, ‘Holy wells near Bristol’, Gloucestershire Countryside June 1966, when they were told that:
“local inhabitants welcome the fact that its stonework is being restored and its water-supply improved.”
Its supply arises at the Lower Lias and Rhaetic limestone lying on Keyper Marl. A. Braine in their 1891 The History of Kingswood Forest calls it a chalybeate spring and states that:
“Here a large number of poor persons who have weak eyes resort to try its healing effects.”
This reference to healing eyes and it is recorded that people travelled for miles to try the cure, being still being publicised into the 1930’s. Interestingly Phil Quinn Quinn in the excellent 1999 The Holy Wells of Bath and Bristol Region, says that:
“women would come to the well with pins to drop in, in the hope of bearing a child.”
However after reviewing Vintner’s 1966 article that author refers to this tradition in Brittany not Siston! (sadly). Unfortunately, this belief has now slipped into other accounts of the well including the excellent website btsarnia.org//the-holy-wells-of-gloucestershire which records:
“In its heyday it drew people from Bristol especially the poor and those with weak eyes or those who were infertile. Pins were dropped into the well by women, hoping to become pregnant at the next intercourse. The efficacy of the waters as an eye cure was locally publicised as late as the 1930s. Similar wells with this custom and intention existed at Wrington, East Harptree and Portishead.”
Quinn (1999) is correct of course in his observation that it is:
“now sadly holds little more than rainwater.”
Stating that it was affected by road widening another impact on this noted holy well and slowly vegetation, litter and neglect may one day claim it.
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?”
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.”
“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
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!
Essex is not that noted for its holy wells, but as Holy Wells and Healing springs of Essex will attest there are a few and perhaps the most interesting is that of St Botolph’s in the picturesque village of Hadstock.
The earliest reference is in William Harrison’s 1567 Description of England he records:
“divers wells which have wrought many miracles in time of superstition, as St Botolph’s Well in Hadstock.”
John Wilson in his Imperial Gazetteer, III (1872) describes it as:
“A well set round with stones, and called St. Botolph’s Well, is in the churchyard.”
John Player’s 1877 Sketches of Saffron Walden and its vicinity notes
“We see it in that ever flowing stream passing under the Church yard wall affords an ample supply of pure unadulterated water of which the villagers gladly avail themselves. The well St Botolph’s well is near the Church and may it long continue a symbol of the purity of that heavenly lore which should proceed from that desk where the Rev Addisson Carr so long known and so much respected in this district pursued the even tenor of his sacred calling for so many years.”
However, by the time of Royal Commission on Historic Monuments, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, I (1916) it was:
“In the churchyard—a well, known as St. Botolph’s well, now covered.”
Indeed there would be some confusion regarding the exact location of this well. The church guide describes a pump to the west end of the churchyard as the well (but the only pump apparent was that across the road), however I was informed that this well was the one picturesquely situated by the road beneath the church. This is a brick-lined square well whose spring percolates into a pool covered in duckweed. No evidence of any material earlier than Victorian is apparent, suggesting it may date from when the pump was established. A wooden fence has been erected around it to prevent people falling in, but apparently the well itself has been covered.
An ancient site
Locally there is evidence of Iron Age occupation. Not far on the Cambridgeshire border is a ring enclosure, and pot shreds have been found in Hadstock Wood as well as bronze axe and an arrow in the village area. However, it is for its association with an Anglo – Saxon saint, Botolph, which has more relevance to the well.
Who was St Botolph?
“that place sanctified to religion in the days of the holy Botolph, there at rest”,
So states Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury in 1142. The well could be a significant site associated with a significant Anglo-Saxon saint interment. In 1974 Dr Warwick Rodwell carried out an archaeological investigation of the church and reported in The Antiquaries Journal, March 1976, 56 Part 1.:
“Total excavation of the nave, crossing, and transepts of Hadstock church in 1974, together with a detailed examination of parts of the upstanding fabric, revealed that this well-known Anglo-Saxon building is not a single-period structure, as has long been assumed. Three periods of Anglo-Saxon work are now known, the earliest of which probably belongs to the pre-Danish era: it comprised a large, five-cell cruciform church which, it is suggested, may be part of the seventh-century monastery founded by St. Botolph, at Icanho. Rebuilding on a monumental scale took place in the early eleventh century and the possibility is discussed that this was Canute’s minster, dedicated in 1020. The church was extensively repaired in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, following the collapse of the central tower. Subsequently the decline in the size and importance of Hadstock as a village saved the church from further extensive alteration.”
These three stages would appear to link to the idea that Icanho was destroyed by the Danish armies in 869 and by 970s all there was left was a one priest chantry chapel. It is thought that Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester obtained the King’s permission to remove the saint’s remains. He would then distribute them to a newly established Thorney which then became dedicated to Botolph, the royal reliquary at Westminster and Ely (which got the head). Although tradition also states that in 1090 they were stolen from Ely! What is interesting is that against the south transept’s east wall an empty grave. This being a significant location it seems highly likely this would be an important person. The village continued its connection with the saint having upheld a pre-Norman charter which allowed a fair to be held on St Botolph’s Day, the 17th of June.
Curative or kill?
Its waters have had a mixed reputation. Tradition records their ability to cure scrofula. Until recently the well was the important source of drinking water for the village. One tradition suggests that if a ring was dropped into it by a lovelorn girl she would find her true love. This tradition was supported by the finding of two rings recently in the cleaning of the well. Wilson (1970) notes a strange activity was practiced within living memory by the white witch: to keep the water pure, dead cats were placed down the well. Obviously, this was not continued for on one occasion the water was the harbinger of a typhoid outbreak, and forty percent of the population—or 40 people—died (although there is no evidence for either). The contamination was the result of the Rev F. E. Smith using the spring as an outlet for his lavatory. If this was not bad enough, one of his staff was a typhoid carrier! This is also notwithstanding, that it was commonly believed that the spring water drains from the graveyard above it: and hence it has earned the name ‘bone gravy’. Despite all these traditions, this did not deter the locals, who vouched for its goodness. Even when piped water was brought to the village in the 1930s, many locals could not see the point as the well water was good enough.
However, once cleaned it could surely be as good as suggested by this review in the London Strand Magazine:
“A Well In a Churchyard. Hadstock. in Essex. Possesses what is probably a unique water supply. It ls entirely derived from a deep well in the pariah churchyard The well is over 800 years old and ls known is St. Botolph’s well. The Inhabitants of Hadstock declare that it contains the best tea making water in Great Britain, and as the village in question ls one of the healthiest places In Essex there ls undoubtedly some truth In their boast?”
Sadly, now apparently due to some odd health and safety claim the well itself is covered with a large metal sheet and covered with flints, however its water still fill the pool beyond.
One has the feeling that St Botolph’s Well is one of the most significant wells of Anglo-Saxon England but so little is known. It is good that in a way that what was once a little known holy well is better known.
“so called after a fountain at the bottom of the Craigs…sacred in Popish times to the Virgin.”
One of the most ornate holy wells in an urban environment is Glasgow’s Lady Well. Laying check and jowl to a brooding industrial landscape of Tennent’s Brewery (does this mean holy water is in the Special Brew?)
It is noted by in the 1935 Glasgow Evening News ‘Encyclopedia of Glasgow’, Glasgow Evening News that the waters became polluted once the Necropolis was built they were redirected below it where the spring exited from the brae. The earliest mention of the well is mentioned by George Eyre-Todd 1934 History of Glasgow who stated that in 1715 when a John Black was paid a salary of 400 merks yearly to keep the well clean:
“Black was to furnish them with chains, buckets, sheaves, ladles, and other necessary graith, as well as with locks and iron bands. He was ‘to cleanse, muck and keep them clean,’ and to lock and open them in due time, evening and morning. In case of failure he was liable to a penalty of £100 Scots.”
Thus 1715 appears to be the earliest mention. It is likely to be much older, being noted on old maps. It may have provided water for Romans travelling the Carntyne Highway towards Antonine Wall. In medieval times it lay outside the old city wall.
Our Lady or local Lady
Paul Bennett in his 2017 Ancient and Holy Wells of Glasgow states that although it is assumed to be derived from Or Lady the site may be derived from a local benefactor, Lady Lochow, who lived nearby and built a hospital at the old Gorbels in the 14th century. However, there is no evidence bar the possibility it would be associated with the similarly unsubstantiated belief that it was sunk when commoners were denied access to the nearby Priest’s Well.
The well head was built in 1835-6 by the City Council and Merchants House when the area behind was converted into a burial ground; the necropolis. An account recorded in J. R. Walker’s 1882 Holy Wells in Scotland in the Proceedings Society Antiquaries Scotland states:
“THE LADY WELL, Ladywell Street, Glasgow. This well has been restored and rebuilt, as it bears. I have not been able to find any drawing showing the original structure. I cannot possibly imagine that the present building bears any resemblance to the former, it being now strictly classic in design and detail. The cross and urn are of cast metal. “Lady Love” or “Lady Well,” so called after a fountain at the bottom of the Craigs (now included in the Necropolis), sacred in Popish times to the Virgin.”
The structure originally was an open round artesian well and was developed into a classical style with the date being carved upon its lintel stone. The site remains a source of water until the 1860s when fresh water was the piped from Loch Katrine rather than another legend which claims it was closed up being a source of plague. There was later restoration in 1875, probably when the well head was capped, and then again in 1983 by the Tennent Caledonian Breweries beside which it incongruously lays. The well itself is more of an ornate folly head with its tureen like basin unlike any holy well I have ever seen nestled in its classical portico. It certainly fits into the grandeur of the necropolis above but as a holy well it is perhaps a little lacking in romance; however it is better off preserved than completely lost! It must mean something to a number of people for the basin and the base are littered with coins which surprisingly considering they are not in water have not been taken!