Category Archives: Shropshire

Holy Well or folly Bath house – Woolston’s St. Winifred’s Well

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Hidden down a little lane in the quite Shropshire village of Woolston is a picture-postcard holy well or is it? A site cited in every major countrywide review of the topic but is it a genuine site?

A holy well?

 Thompson and Thompson (2001) in their Wells of Mainland Britain are pretty equivocal stating that the well was used in the medieval period as a source of healing. A fact perhaps taken for the association with Saint Winifred. However, although this is a common theme amongst modern well researchers the earliest reference referring to the site by name is Phillips and Hulbert’s 1837 History of Salop:

“In the township of Woolston is a remarkable well, dedicated to St Winefred, but whether of healing virtues I am not able to give information.”

However, Charlotte S. Burne, Shropshire Folk-Lore reveal some interesting local evidence:

“some have sought to explain this dedication (now locally forgotten) by supposing that the relics of St Winifred may have rested here on their way from Gwytherin in North Wales to Shrewsbury Abbey, in the twelfth century; but it is easily accounted for by the fact that certain small stones spotted with indelible red marks resembling bloodstains are occasionally found in the water… The water, which is singularly clear, is supposed to have wonderful powers of healing wounds and bruises and broken bones”.

Burne tells had some of the pebbles examined at the British Museum, ‘where the red marks are pronounced not to be mineral, but organic; probably a kind of fresh-water alga’ – perhaps the Byssus jolithus formerly found in the Holywell well? Interestingly Hope (1893) in the Legendary Lore of Holy Wells does not refer it to as St. Winifred’s Well:

WEST FELTON: HOLY WELL. There is a small holy well in this parish (West Felton), in a hamlet called Woolston. The water of this well is still used by the country people for complaints of the eyes. It is a beautiful clear stream, running under a small black and white chapel into two paved square baths environed with stone walls, one of which is lower than the other. The higher one has steps down to the water, and, strange to say, there is more water in summer than in winter. Under the chapel, which overhangs the stream, is a long-shaped niche which has evidently contained the statue of the saint. At this side is a small cell, or covered place, where probably the priest or monk stood to dispense the water. The chapel is now unfortunately used as a cottage, and the beams of the roof inside are covered with whitewash. At one end there is the tracery of Tudor roses and acanthus leaves, upon what is evidently the framework of a window.–See Shropshire Arch. Soc. Trans. ix. 238.”

St Winifred's Well Oswestry (9)

This delightful black and white building is a difficult edifice to evaluate. Some accounts suggest it is 14th century and built by Margaret Tudor the same endower as St. Winifred’s Well in Holy Well Clywd. This is the view of Lawson Tait (1884–5) in a piece called  The holy well at Woolston, Salop in Bye-Gones Relating to Wales & the Border Counties:

“is an original remain of the fourteenth century, untouched by the hand of the restorer… duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”

Indeed early OS maps do mark the site as ‘Old Chapel’ but the question is if it was orientated such why is the well dedicated to St. Winifred. Adolphus Dovaston (1886) in a piece for the Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological. & Natural History Society called‘Woolston Well, Shropshire’  may have provided the answer stating that West Felton church may have been the source for its fourteenth-century. It was rebuilt in 1600s, a stone to the right of the entrance of the bath states 1635, which is a suitable date for the development of something else – a plunge pool.. These start appearing around the mid to late 1600s and it is worth noting that many of those which remain from that period often have a unifying theme – they are dedicated to saints. However, many are spurious – St Chad’s Bath near Lichfield and St Catherine’s Well and Bath, Southwell, are particularly significant examples especially the former which adopts a local popular saint. However, the site does not appear to have been big enough to attract any significant trade, but it is perfectly arranged for a private plunge. The cold bath below and the warming room above as a single cell typical of later cold baths. However did the local legend appear to explain the well’s dedication by the lord of the manor? This is suggested by Dovaston (1884-5) who quoting a local historian who was writing in 1800 recalls:

“a court house being built in Woolston, over a well made for a bath for the Jones’s of Sandford family, when they left Sandford, it became the rendezvous of the country who from the middle of May to the end of Harvest resorted from all parts hither, some (at nights) to bathe and dance and riot most of the night at the alehouses…till… about the year 1755”. 

If the site was a cold bath, why do we have no record of this usage? This might be because the land owner converted the site for use as a manorial court and there is record of its said usage until 1824. This however is at variance perhaps to another account which states it was derelict around 1800 and restored by the rector.

So summing up what is likely? There are two possible scenarios:

  • The well is medieval, the upper section being a mediaeval and in situ. In the post reformation it was converted to secular use
  • The well is 17th century only, a cold bath, using fabric from a local church. Once the cold bath fad passed the upper section was utilised as a court.

 

There is perhaps a third possibility. The spring was dedicated by recusants in the county, although Catholic densities were low in the county and mainly centred in the north around modern day Telford such as the Giffards.

Whatever the truth unlike other sites….which languish unloved…after a time when its future was uncertain the Landmark Trust took it on and now it’s a delightful and unique holiday home, with an extra outside bath.

The Holy Well of Tibberton

The path down to the well from the road…what could the well look like? I didn’t have an idea

A mark on the current O/S map SJ 688  217 in blue writing is all I knew of this well. What could it be? A boggy morass or something more substantial? The map showed it located beside the road suggesting easy access for a visit and so I decided to investigate the site. First clue was a footpath sign but this did not go to the well, a few paces ahead a small copse appeared on the left with an inviting opening and a path descending downwards. From here one could hear water and see something in the near distance. Soon the holy well was clearly visible a very large brick lined walled structure with a gravel bottom. The water appeared remarkably clear and ran under the path into a concrete channel and into a pool below to form a brook. The water was remarkable clear and the sound of its considerable flow very therapeutic. Despite the sound of thunder around the small copse appeared to be isolated from the outside world.

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The well turned out to be a substantial brick lined pool…quite impressive

came down the Mite Lane with pack mules and carried water back from the well.”

A local tradition associates the spring with the monks of Dodecote. Anne Furness (1983) in Furness, Anne, 1983, ‘Wells and paths’  in Earthlines magazine notes that they: How true this story is unknown especially as there does not appear to be any fabric which could date from this time. The monks in question would be associated with a property given by Buildwas Abbey. The earliest record is the house-name Holy Well from 1796 and the well itself appears on the 1881 O/S map. Certainly the present structure was established fairly recently and probably for farming use especially as the large volume of water would be more than sufficient for the small community. Perhaps the strangest fact is that the village is so far away from this considerable source. Furness (1983) was told that

“there used to be grooves cut into the rock so that buckets could be put under the spring to catch the water”

Sadly despite was is a considerable spring the correspondent added:

“We used to draw water from the spring until 10 years ago, when the health authorities failed it.”

Yet, this ancient spring still flows vigorously and copiously whatever its history, a delightfully peaceful oasis a few steps from the road, and worth a small detour to visit.

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What flows down a channel at some speed to a steam below. The sound is very therapeutic.

A well for August – St Oswald’s Well, Oswestry

St Oswald's Well Oswestry (2)

 “Oswald’s Well. Legend states that King Oswald was killed in battle against King Penda at the Battle of Maserfield an Eagle later lifted, flew and then dropped his arm at this site from whence a spring of water has since bubbled.”

Such reads the plaque at this famous well. Told in the Life of St Oswald by Reginald of Durham, 1165 (tr. from text in Simeon of Durham 1882):

“the arm, with its consecrated right hand, fell on the bare hard rock. All at once, through God’s wonderful power, from the spot where the holy arm touched the ground in its fall, there gushed out a clear unfailing spring… It so happened that Oswin the king, prompted by a message from God, found his way to this spring… He took the arm and hand out of its waters, and as the vision had commanded, he bore away the most holy head with its arms and hands. On this spot, right up until today, miracles are worked through the power of God and the merits of St Oswald. Here sick people receive the gift of health; the mad who come here are freed of their demons; and through drinking the consecrated waters, many kinds of illness are redeemed.”

The legend of its creation possibly dates from Leland states:

“that in his day it was said that an eagle snatched away an arm of Oswald from the stake, but let it fall in that place where now the spring is.”

Another version states the arm was dropped when his dismembered body was being transported to the site and hung on a tree: Oswald’s Tree.

As Hope (1893) in his seminal work on Holy Wells of England notes that there the well is not mentioned in the authentic history of the saint and assigns a pagan origin, although this is difficult to justify and may be antiquarian fancy.

Its first mention appears to be a 13th century deed noting an exchange of land between Shrewsbury and Haughmond Abbeys:

“a furlong near the garden of the aforementioned Shrewsbury Abbey, which reaches as far as the furlong of the same at St Oswald’s well.”

 St Oswald's Well Oswestry (7)

 In the fifteenth century the chronicler Capgrave writes that in the plain called in English Maserfeld the church which is called the White Church is founded in honour of St. Oswald, and not far from it rises an unfailing spring, which is named by the inhabitants St. Oswald’s Well.

A healing spring

Hope states that a local antiquarian Mr. J. F. M. Dovaston in 1842 states that:

“the feeble and the infirm still believe and bathe in the well, and did more so until it was enclosed in the noisy playground. Bottles of its waters are carried to wash the eyes of those who are dim or short-sighted, or the tardy or erring legs of such as are of weak understandings.”

The establishment of the grammar school nearby undoubtedly caused the well to denigrate into a wishing-well. Hope (1893) notes that:

“One rite is, to go to the well at midnight, and take some of the water up in the hand, and drink part of it, at the same time forming the wish in the mind. The rest of the water must then be thrown upon a particular stone at the back of the well, where the schoolboys think that King Oswald’s head was buried, and where formerly a carved head wearing a crown projected from the wall….If the votary can succeed in throwing all the water left in his hand upon this stone, without touching any other spot, his wish will be fulfilled.”

This according to Hope or his correspondent was not the only form over ritual. He also states that:

“A young girl at Oswestry, about three years ago, obtained the wish which she had breathed into a small hole in the keystone of the arch over the well.”

Another approved plan is to bathe the face in the water, and wish while doing so; or, more elaborately, to throw a stone upon a certain green spot at the bottom of the well, which will cause a jet of water to spout up in the air. Under this, the votary must put his head and wish, and the wish will be fulfilled in the course of one or two days. Another plan savours of divination: it is to search among the beech trees near the well for an empty beechnut-husk, which can be imagined to bear some sort of likeness to a human face, and to throw this into the water with the face uppermost. If it swims while the diviner counts twenty, the wish will be fulfilled, but not otherwise.

A remarkable survival

St Oswald's Well Oswestry (5)

It is perhaps surprising that this well has survived. The first mention of the well is in the 14th century Life of St Oswald (Nova Legenda Anglie) stating:

“On that field is a church, called White Church, which was founded in honour of St Oswald. Not far off there rises an unfailing spring which the local people call St Oswald’s well’.

According to Leland there was also a chapel here of which the ruins survived into the late 1700s according to Pennant. The present walled fabric probably dates from around this time and is built into the bank. It consists of a rounded archway which is now unfortunately sealed by a metal grill. Despite some periods of neglect through the centuries, since restored hopefully it will survive for many years hence. Some feat for a well with a supposed Saxon heritage…if we believe the legends.

A Shropshire field trip

Shropshire has a number of interesting holy and ancient wells

STOKE ST MILBOROUGH

Wells found in villages which bear the name of the saint the well is dedicated to are always very interesting and this site is perhaps the original focus for the community and it is not always clear my the saint has become synonymous with the location. The origins of St Milburga’s Well is associated with a local legend. In the village they tell a legend of the saint being chased for two days and nights non-stop until exhausted she is said to have fallen from her white horse and cut her head open on a stone. The fall was witnessed by some farm workers who came to her aid but found no water to bathe her with. She then turned to her horse and instructed it to hit the stone to which the spring then arose. Such stories are often told of saints, for example see my blog entry on St. Thomas’s Well Otford for a more famous example. A great story is also recorded that she made the barley the men were sowing when the incident happened to grow rapidly, in fact so much that it was harvestable. When the saint’s pursuers came by later that day the men were indeed harvesting the barley, and so when asking if they had seen the saint they said yes when they were sowing the barley. Confused, the pursuers gave up and the saint escaped.  The well itself was noted for cures of the eye although it also used for washing clothes by the local women and was finally enclosed in the early 20th century for the village water supply. Today despite appearing still to be tapped, the modern water works being rather incongruous and ugly, the main spring still flows rapidly down hill arising in a square chamber. It has occassionally been dressed.

HOPE BAGGOTT

Hope Baggot’s holy well is one of the simplest but most evocative of sacred springs. One can feel that little has changed for perhaps thousands of years and if such sites do have a pre-Christian history this one with its protective ancient yew is clearly a candidate. Sadly little is known of the site. The Carbon dating of the yew gives a date of 6000 years but does not mean the site has been venerated that long. The well itself arises in a stone lined grotto and flows pleasantly. The tree is adorned by clooties and the overall effect is rather magical.

LUDLOW

Ludlow has two noted wells, either sides of the town. The Boiling spring is a rather insignificant boggy morass and not much to be seen. However, it is one of the few wells to attract a legend as Hope (1893) notes:

“The pretty legend of the Boiling Well–so called from its continual bubbling as it rises–in a meadow beside the River Corve at Ludlow, was related to me on the spot in the year 1881, as follows. Three centuries ago the principal figure would have been described as a holy saint in disguise instead of a simple palmer.

Years ago, you know, there was what was called the Palmers’ Guild at Ludlow. You may see the palmers’ window in the church now: it is the east window in the north chancel, which was the chantry chapel of the guild. The old stained glass gives the story of the Ludlow palmers; how King Edward the Confessor gave a ring to a poor pilgrim, and how years afterwards two palmers from Ludlow, journeying homewards from the Holy Land, met with the blessed St. John the Evangelist, who gave them the same ring, and bade them carry it to their king, and tell him that he to whom he had given it was no other than the saint himself, and that after receiving it again the king should not live many days, which came to pass as he said. The Palmers’ Guild founded many charities in Ludlow, and among them the Barnaby House, which was a hospice for Poor travellers. Many used to pass through the town in those days, especially pilgrims going to St. Winifred’s Well in Wales. And once upon a time an old palmer journeying thither was stayed some days at Barnaby House by sickness, and the little maid of the house waited on him. Now, this little maid had very sore eyes. And when he was got well and was about to go on his way, he asked of her what he should do for her. ‘Oh, master,’ said she, ‘that my sight might be healed!’ Then he bade her come with him, and led her outside the town, till they stood beside the Boiling Well. And the old man blessed the well, and bade it have power to heal all manner of wounds and sores, to be a boon and a blessing to Ludlow as long as the sun shines and water runs. Then he went his way, and the little maid saw him no more, but she washed her eyes with the water, and they were healed, and she went home joyfully. And even to this day the well is sought by sufferers from diseases of the eyes.”

St Julian’s Well is enclosed in something a little more substantial, a stone well house which is rather strangely placed on a small island in the road. It is difficult to see how functional this well would be as I could not see a doorway. The whole structure is rather sunken in the ground and looks more like a conduit house. It was used by the Augustinian friary.

Top Ten Unusual Holy well locations

In my searches for holy wells, here are ten of the oddest places I have found them. If you know any odder ones let me know. I’ve hyperlinked to megalithic portal for most were a page exists. Note due to the locations some of these sites are on private land.

Under a church. Much is spoken of the Christianisation of pagan springs by siting churches over them but the evidence is not common, St Ethelbert’s Well in Marden Herefordshire is one such example, located in a room to the west end of the nave, existing as a circular hole in the carpet mounted by a wooden frame.

In a bridge, Bridge chapels are a rarity in England and so were bridge holy wells and as far as I can tell of those said to exist at Barking in Essex and possibly in Nottingham at Trent bridge, only Biddenham’s Holy Well still survives in an ancient bridge, probably dating from the 17th century its worn steps lead down to a chamber beneath the bridge, although access is hampered by a locked gate.

Under my kitchen. A visit in search of St John’s Well near Retford, Nottinghamshire reveals a subterranean rectangular stone lined chamber designed to be a plunge pool for body immersions beneath a trap door in a person’s kitchen. More can be learned here or in Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire.

In the shadow of the tower blocks. Urbanisation has a tendency to sweep away anything inconvenient and messy like an ancient well and have in conduited away in pipes or just filled in, luckily one of oldest of Derbyshire’s holy wells (or at least with one of the oldest provenances) survives in a juxtaposition between some older housing and some tower blocks. Vandalised over the years and currently protected by an unsightly metal cage it St. Alkmund’s Well, flows on at the point where his body is said to have rested on the way to his shrine (supposedly in the city museum)

On a golf course. Surprisingly, despite what you would think would be an inconvenience, a number of holy wells arise between the bunkers and fairways of the countries golf courses. In Kent we have St Augustine’s Well at Ebbsfleet, Oxfordshire’s Holy Well at Tadmarton, and Jesus’s well at Miniver, Cornwall. My favourite, although it may not be a holy well per se (deriving from O.E holh or hol) is Holwell on Newstead Golf Course, Nottinghamshire. A natural fern, moss and liverwort adorned cave whose sweet waters are still available via a cup attached to a metal chain.

In the grounds of a school. As long as they don’t fill them with paper aeroplanes and rubbers, wells can survive in school estates well. The best example is the Lady’s Well located within the Bedgebury School Estate, a large sandstone structure has been raised over the spring either to celebrate Our Lady, original landowner Vicountess Beresford or perhaps a past Bedgebury School Headmistress!

Amongst the rock pools on the beach. Although now dry, St Govan’s Well and its associated Chapel are undoubtedly the most atmospherically positioned of any of this list. A small stone well house covers the spring which has either dried or being filled up by too many pebbles.

In a cave. Perhaps the most atmospheric of holy wells is the Holy Well of Holy Well bay near Newquay Cornwall. A large sea cave reveals a magical multicoloured series of troughs made by a natural spring that has dripped its mineral load over the rocks and formed a perfect immersion set up. Its origins are linked to the resting of St. Cuthbert on his way to Durham. Crotches were left on the beach outside by healed pilgrims.

Under a holiday home and an old Courthouse – St Winifred’s Well Woolston is a delightfully picturesque black and white tudor courthouse now a holiday home sitting up top of the chambers of St Winifred’s Well. A site associated with the pilgrim route to her shrine in Shrewsbury and well at Holy Well in Flintshire.

Restored in a new housing estate. Developers of new estates are not always sympathetic to history perhaps and certainly not water history, but the designers of De Tany Court in St Alban’s took good advice and preserved the newly discovered St. Alban’s Well, lost for decades in the grounds of the nearby school’s playing fields, in their new housing estate and made it a garden feature.