Category Archives: Somerset
The parish of Easter Coker, near Yeovil, in Somerset, is fortunate to have a wealth of springs and sources. In the 1920s two springs, at Burton in the north of the parish (5332 1384) and in Coker Court Park to the south (5335 1233), met the needs of the majority of homes. There are stories that during the first world war village men patrolled these springs to guard against German spies poisoning the water. A few homes, notably at Foxholes and on Lodge Hill, are still supplied by spring water.
Sadly, some of these springs and streams have been piped underground. At the hamlet of Nash the spring is called Peter’s Hole (5387 1375; can anyone help explain this name?) The stream runs from the source through the now vanished hamlet of Sheepslake and into North Coker Park, a 19th century creation, where the water emerges as an overgrown pond behind iron railings then dips back underground where it used to meet a hydraulic ram that lifted the water up into tanks in the roof of North Coker House.
Going back in time, the Roman villa site at East Coker is situated close to a spring (5472 1393) that rises to the north of Dunnock’s Lane and trickles down to the cottages at Patchlake. A footpath flows this little stream along its course to Paviotts Mill in Coker Moor. Across the moor near Davole Farm (on Private land: 5524 1211) is what appears to be a little dew pond, but may be a spring called the Beauty spring (B.A Hackwell The story of our village 1953 p6.) rising there, close to the road from Sutton Bingham, an ealden herepath or ‘old army road’ according to a 9th century charter.
In the village of East Coker itself the spring in Coker Court Park (see above) runs down from an overgrown reservoir where villagers could once collect water from a pump, and through the broken remains of a stone-edged pond that might once have supplied the oce for an ice house in a field at the other end of the track across the park. The stream then meanders round to west wells where, in the front garden of one of these cottages, there is a medieval stone washing place which can be seen from the road. The stream then runs along the roadside past the Helyar Arms pub, before doubling back and making its way across the moor.
In Coker Moor itself is ne of the most impressive wells in the parish, known as Blackwells (5497 1302), where the rusty-coloured water of this chalybeate spring bubbles to the surface to fill a small stone surrounded pond or drinking place for cattle, built by a local farmer. Blackwells water is said to be good for eyes. It can be approached from the telephone kiosk in North Coker where you go down a rough track called Moor Lane, past the sewage works until you reach a gate to a large field called Moor Field. Walk around the edge of the field in either direction and you will come to Blackwells in the far corner. The farmer allows access to this field and it is a popular place for villagers to walk.
In the far south-western corner of the parish of East Coker is the hamlet of Lyatts where a beautiful spring constantly flows out of a hedge bank (5233 1184) past a few withies and an impromptu pond, before tumbling out and under the road through Lyatts, running downhill towards Hardington in the next parish. Whilst not prepossessing to look at with its yellow plastic pipe, the boundary of the parish of East Coker cuts across to this little spring which must have been important feature in the landscape. The place-name Lyatts is believed to be all that remains of the Saxon hundred of ‘Liet/Licget’ meaning ‘lych-gate’. The spring is easily reached as it lies along a footpath, only a stone’s throw from the gate at Lyatts.
Two springs at Primrose Hill on the western edge of the parish (5292 1280) feed a little stream that runs down to Halves Lane. It is on this hillside, up above Primrose Hill Farm, that the holywell field names occur on a 1819 map of the parish. In amongst these are Bridles mead and Bridles orchard – in 1770 the former is listed as ‘Bridewells mead’. I have heard that earlier in this century there was even a spring rising in the road here. A footpath takes you across the fields, close to these sources, and follows the stream for part of the way downhill to Halves Lane. If the name Bridewells is original (and not, say, the name of the farmer who owned the field), it is interesting to note that in the Middle Ages, Bride or Bridget was a popular saint in Somerset, with a cult centring on Glastonbury; and thus he wells may have been dedicated to her. Or it might be a dim memory of the pagan goddess Briga.
At the foot of Primrose Hill, and a good place to finish this description, is the Holy well itself, which can be found in the hamlet of Holywell, on the boundary between East and West Coker (5295 1325) Here the spring rises to the north side of the Foresters Arms pub, next to the footpath leading across to Burton. Dom Ethelbert Horne visited the well while preparing his book on the holy wells of Somerset, and described it in the following words:
“The well itself is a plentiful spring, the water coming through a pipe and falling between some great stones. These are squared and dressed stones, some of them being large steps, and they may have been part of a building in former times. No tradition, that I could find, existed in the neighbourhood as to why this place is called Holywell, nor were the waters considered ‘good for eyes’. Indeed, when I asked an old lady on the spot, who had come to dip up some of the water if it was good for anything on particular she replied ‘Yes for making tea!’ She added that across the moor was a spring the water for which was ‘good for the eyes’. The directions for finding this well were so vague that I did not make the search.”
(Ethelbert Horne Somerset holy wells, London 1923, p35)
The other well mentioned to Dom Ethelbert by the old lady was the one known as Blackwells. The wells of East Coker are modest ones – both in their scale and their seclusion – but deserve the rediscovery of a visitor’s or a pilgrims’ eye
originally published in Source New Series 3 Spring 1995
The plants and trees on the surrounding banks seem to lean towards St Aldhelm’s Well in perpetual veneration. The effect is of being at the heart of a leafy hermit’s cell. The magic of the place is hidden from irreverent eyes by a wall through which the water trickles in a trough in the lane. In May the wooded slopes are lush with pungent wild garlic and all year round the steady sound of running water offers a refreshing reward even for the most world-weary modern pilgrim.
The village of Doulting (Somerset) lies about two miles east of Shepton Mallet on the A361. The name means ‘dark water’ and until the eighteenth century the river Sheppey was known as Doulting water. The village is famous for its stone which was used in the building of Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury Abbey. In previous years Doulting St Agnes fountain (another holy well) was reputed to cure the ‘quarter-all’ (cattle paralysis) but not if the cattle was stolen.
St Aldhelm, after whom the well is named, was a Benedictine monk who died in Doulting in 709. He is immortalised in the present church in stained class and in a statue; standing beside his spring, which he often visited to pray and to baptise the faithful. It was customary until recently to use the wall water for all christening; these days this only happens at the special request of the parents.St Aldhelm was the first Englishmen to encourage classical study; writing lengthy prose in a flowery and extravagant Latin style. He moved in high circles and was a relative of Ina, the heathen King of the Saxons, as well as being Abbot of Malmsebury and later Bishop of Sherborne.
He also appears to have had an eccentric side to his character. Gloria and Favid Bowles are residents of Doulting and have made an extensive study of the saint and his well. They hold the spot in high regard and due to their strong sense of connection with the place, are keen to see it preserved as a sacred shrine. David told me that Aldhelm used to nuddgle and eat fire to attract would-be converts, as wella s being remembered for lying up to his neck in the ice-cold well bath, whilst reciting the Psalter. Hewent on to say, with an impish smile, that he cherishes a mental picture of St. Aldhelm juggling three balls before a fascinated audience while muttering ‘ Father, son and holy ghost’
The well is now under the management of the Shepton Mallet Amenity Trust which bought it from Wells Cathedral for £1. The trust tried to interfere as little as possible with the site, doing minor repairs to the walling and felling some dangerous trees. Test on the water proved it free of contaminants and good to drink. Plans a few years ago to bottle the water for wider distribution were not met warmly by the village and were abandoned.
In 1893 R. C. Hope in his Holy Wells of England described the water as ‘wonder-working; and there are legends about its ability to cure blindness. Fred Davies of the Amenity Trust told me that less than ten years ago a Shepton woman of his acquaintance bathed her child’s severe eczema with the water from the well and the condition cleared. There appears to be no recent mineral analysis of the water, which seems a worthwhile task, in view of the well’s reputation.
According to Janet and Colin Bord in their book Sacred Waters (Granada 1985) the earliest water cults can be traced to around 6000 BC with an increasing awareness of the importance of unpolluted water, we are today seeing something of a revival in interest in water lore. Most ancient cultures developed ritualised ways of honouring the value of water. Divinities and the guardian of sacred wells was recognised as female and revered by many names the world over. Some of the old deities’ names still remain hidden in the names of our rivers today. Ceremonies were regularly performed beside wells and springs – to improve one’s fortune, gain insight into the future, seek healing or even make a curse. Often wells are attributed with specialised healing properties; eye complaint, infertility and children’s ailments being most usual. In less cynical days than ours, pieces of clothing from the sick would be bathed in water and bound to the ailing part or tied to the branches overhanging the well. These days rags and offerings can sometimes be found in the vicinity of ancient holy wells and the tradition of well dressing surviving only in Derbyshire is now reappearing in other parts of the country.
For many years St. Aldhelm’s Well was a site of pilgrimage and in the 30s and 40s Dom Ethelbert Horne, a Downside monk and enthusiastic antiquarian, took parties of visitors to the well. He recorded its existence for posterity in his book ‘Holy wells of Somerset’ (1923)Today as well as being a recreational spot and a water hole, for many in the village and beyond the well continues to be a place of pilgrimage and, from tome to time, local people have decorated it with flowers and candles to honour it as a natural spring
(The above was the first draft of a booklet entitled St Aldhelm’s Well published by Ms Sherwood (Shepton Mallet 1991) and is printed her by kind permission of the author.
Many people visit the picturesque village of Dunster with its delightful market cross but tucked up an ancient cobbled lane which becomes increasingly muddy even in the height of summer, is the less well known St Leonard’s Well, Dunster. Mossy and weather worn. An old wooden door appears almost from the wall to go where?
It is believed to be of 14th-15th Century construction, and formed the supply for the ancient town priory ( now ruinous ). It is mentioned in records of Edward III and Henry IV reign as ‘Fontem sancti Leonardi’.
According to William Hamper 1808’s topographical account of Dunster a 1377 deed of 1377 records a:
‘subtus Grobbefaste, juxta fontem Sancti Leonardi’
and again deed of 1412/3 (ibid.) refers to strips in Dunster open field:
‘vocata above ye town, prope fontem Sancti Leonard’.
Hamper is the individual who associated the current structure with said well stating:
“a spring, over which a conduit is built, on the side of Grabice, which I presume to be the Well of St Leonard”.
One wonders whether the conduit and St Leonard’s Well are really one and the same especially when conduit houses are very rarely placed over wells from my experience. Certainly by the time the magnus opus on the county’s holy wells compiled his works Dom Horne was sure. In his 1923 Somerset Holy Wells notes that:
“a small 14th or 15th-century building still stands over it, but the water is not used. It overflows into the lane by which it is approached, making it into a kind of water-course. This well may have been the water supply for the Priory, and it may also have filled the curious arched water trough in the southern wall of the churchyard.”
It is known that the water was still utilised until the 18th century when in In 1777 the old pipes were re-laid and covered and new ones added. It thus filling not just the churchyard trough but another at the south end of the high street. Architecturally the structure is made of rubble with a cemented roof and a chamfered free stone opening with a segmental head and plain wooden door. It was locked when I first visited but a subsequent visit when the door was open showed why. There is a considerable depth of water within filling a rectangular squared off pool full of some form of algae!
Horne notes that until recently people still visited this well and used the water for strengthening the eyes but beyond this little is known. When locked the water could be sourced from a trickling pipe.
For those who visit St Leonard’s well offers a moment of peace, lying picturesquely by the side of the lane, overshadowed by a thorn bush not adorned with rags I would add, a pleasingly quiet place in comparison to the hectic nature of Dunster in Summer time.
Overlooking the Bristol channel on a hill in Watchet is a holy well associated directly with the struggle between paganism and Christianity. A spring which arose at the site of his brutal martyrdom. Now a delightfully peaceful oasis and a favourite site
Who was St. Decumen?
Born of noble Celtic parents at Rhoscrowther in Pembrokeshire. Wishing to live a hermit life he travelled across the Bristol channel on his raft made of a cloak with a cow for a companion. There he became a hermit teaching the local people Christianity and healing people.
St Decumen’s martyrdom.
The Life of St Decuman in the Nova Legenda Anglie, records how in AD 706, his missionary teachings were becoming unwelcome to the old heathen leaders, and so they plotted to remove him. Thus he was attacked whilst in prayer and summarily decapitated ( other authorities say it was by pagan robbers possibly Vikings? ) They were described as:
‘a certain man more venomous than an asp, more poisonous than the adder’
They were said to have cut his head off with a spade and in the legend it is said:
“when he was beheaded with a spade, the trunk of the mutilated body, they say, raised itself and took its own head in its hands and carried it from the place where he was beheaded to a fountain of most limpid water, in which he was accustomed to wash his face with his hands. Which to this day in memory and reverence of him is called the ‘Fountain of Saint Decuman’, and is sweet, healthful, and necessary to the inhabitants for drinking purposes. In which place the head, together with the body, were afterwards sought for and found by the faithful, and honourably placed in a tomb”.
However his decapitation did not stop his missionary zeal and he picked up his head and washed in the nearby stream. After which he replaced it back on his own body and carried on. Others say that the spring itself arose where the head fell. It is said that this act was so miraculous that the local people helped build a church according Ben Norman’s 1992 Legends and Folklore of Watchet.
Legends associating springs with heads are common in holy well tradition and a number have been discussed on this blog. One wonders whether the spring was originally a pagan site in this case and that was why the pagan community was angry…this anger still continues I note as seen on Facebook and some forums!
The holy well
Dom Horne (1923) in Somerset Holy Wells states that
“the holy well is in a field at the west end of the church, and the water comes out between great stones set on end, having a third forming a roof on top of them. The water runs down sharply sloping field it flows into a number of stone basins, one below another”.
This is what remains today although it has gone through periods of neglect and vandalism since. Today the side walls consist of a number of slates, however the cover is still one large piece. The water still flows into three stone basins, although they are a little clogged with sediment. A series of steps ( somewhat eroded ) reach the well. A great deal of clear water remains in the well, and according to Horne, it was still sought after in 1923, although it would appear that bar a few coins, there is now no evidence of this.
Michael Calder in his 2003, Early ecclesiastical sites in Somerset: three case studies in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeology .& Natural History Society. Suggests that the spring maybe all that is left of an earlier minister church which was probably lost by the 11th century with the cult moving to the well and church once it had vanished.
Interesting a sign by the well states the well was restored in association with a local pagan society….perhaps at last the struggle has gone!
The area of Charlcombe and Lansdown on the outskirts of Bath boasts three holy wells. The first one is of these is St Mary’s Well which attracted some notoriety in the 1980s when its existence seemed threatened. An article in the Bristol Evening Post of 6th June 1986 entitled ‘Hermit told to quit holy well site’, related according to an article in the Source Journal of Holy Wells how:
“the Bishop of Bath and Wells had obtained a court order to evict ‘bearded 42 year-old artist Alan Broughton’ who had made a makeshift home under a tree in the grounds of Charlcombe Rectory, near Bath. The rectory is due to be sold by the church even though its grounds include St Mary’s holy well. Churchwarden John Kirkman is leading a campaign to preserve the well in some way and I sent a letter of support on behalf of Source to be added to similar letters from other concerned parties for presentation to the Church Commissioners. It is to be hoped the Church will not put profit before sanctity.”
A report in the Proceedings of the Bath and District Branch of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society for 1909-1913 records:
“Mr. Grey … tells me he has known of this one, under the name of St. Mary’s Well, for a great number of years. It is close to the old Norman Church at Charlcombe, in the Rectory garden, amid a clump of ferns. The inhabitants have a tradition that the water is good for the eyes, and some twenty years ago persons were known to come and take it away in bottles. It is also stated to be a “wishing well,” and I believe the water is still taken from this source for baptisms. Mr. Grey gives an extract from a letter in which the writer states that a lady derived considerable benefit from this well, through applying the water to her eyes.”
The Rectory was sold and the hermit was removed. But what happened to the well? Dom Horne (1923) in his Somerset Holy Wells records the site as being:
“ situated in a bank, now covered with ferns, and the water flows through a pipe into a small natural basin. The village people used to take away the water from this well, as it was reputed to be ‘good for the eyes’, and the font in the church was filled from the same source.”
Searching for the site in the 1990s I couldn’t get access to the Rectory and feared it may have been lost but soon found a sign for it! It had been moved a controversial option for a holy well. It now lay in a public garden and filled a small elliptical pool. Overlooking the pool is a stone carving of Christ being baptised in the river Jordan This according to Quinn’s 1999 xxx it was done in 1989. It was very good to see someone preserve it, but I did wonder what had happened to the origin stonework. Was there something still in the Rectory, Quinn is silent on this. In a way this sort of modern day action underlines the contradictory views of those who look upon the site in regards to its waters and those, such as historians, who might be more concerned with its fabric. The Holy Well is used for baptisms and Christian festivals such as Ascension Day and Easter Day.
Above the village not far from Beckford’s Tower is another well, one which is in a way far more interesting by virtue of its dedication. This is St Alphege’s Well. Its first reference was in the 15th century were it is recorded that there were lands
“apud fontem Sancti Alphege.”
When Horne visited he stated that:
“This well is situated on…the opposite side of the road to the old cricket ground. A steep path, which looks as if it was once made with cobblestones, leads down from the road to the bottom of the field. The water issues from a bank and falls into a Roman coffin. This…was brought from Northstoke about forty or fifty years ago, by a farmer who wanted to make a drinking place for his cattle…A mile from this well, on the road to the Monument, is Chapel Farm. This was originally St Laurence’s Hospice for pilgrims on their way to Glastonbury. It is not uncommon to find a holy well by frequented pilgrim tracks, and this is a good example…This is probably the only well in England dedicated to this saint.”
Horne is not correct there are records of other Alphege wells one in far way Solihul and a possible another one in Kent. Both lost! What is interesting concerning St. Alphege’s well is that a path remains as a track linking it to a fifteenth-century chapel which half a mile away which suggests it was on a pilgrim route. Indeed Quinn (1999) relates that its waters were sought until recently:
“by the Catholic Church of St Alphege in Bath, who came to take away a gallon of the holy water for use in the baptismal font. At one time there was a deposit of soot on the roof of the well chamber, left by the burning candles of generations of pilgrims’.
Today they would find it difficult to fill the water for the access to the well is very overgrown and the doorway locked. One hopes that soon access can be improved otherwise I fear the well may be forgotten
Alphege was a local saint so to speak living in Gloucestershire at the Deerhurst monastery near Tewkesbury in the late 900s. Why here? Well he is said to lived as a hermit in a small hut here and was latter associated with the building of Bath Abbey before meeting a death of a Dane in the early 11th century Greenwich, the site being now a church!
The final well is now lost St Winefredes Well, Sion Hill, Lansdown. St Winifred unlike St. Alphege probably needs little introduction being a noted Welsh Martyr whose death at the hands of a pagan ‘husband’ she was forced to marry and resurrection by her uncle St Beuno are well known in hagiographical terms and of course a well-known healing water shrine arose – The Lourdes of Wales. But in Bath’s suburbs such as dedication is curious. Of this well it is described in 1749 in John Wood’s An Essay Towards a Description of Bath as:
“A Spring of Water, which, for some Mineral Quality, was, in former times, dedicated to St Winifred; the Fountain still bearing the name of Winifred’s Well; and it is much frequented in the Spring of the Year by People who drink the Water, some with Sugar and some without.”
As such this would make it the furthest south and west of the Sugar wells i.e those where people would drink them on specific days with sugar or licorice. However finding provenance for the well is difficult and it seems likely that its name was adopted at a later date when it became acceptable once again to visit the Flintshire shrine. Evidence may be drawn from Robert Peach’s 1883, Historical Houses in Bath and their Associations which recalls that Mary of Modena lived nearby. Now it is known this was around the same time as she travelled back from the more famous St Winifred’s Well in Flintshire to utilise the Cross Bath and other local springs to hopefully fulfil a wish to conceive. Did someone locally know her location and puffed a local mineral spring as a St. Winifred’s Well. Indeed Peach notes that the spring was sought by:
“women with superstitious hopes of maternity.”
Of course a St Winifred’s Well did exist, 19th century deeds for a Winifred House refer to
“Pasture-Ground, called the Barn-piece, wherein was a well called Winifred’s Well.”
And it does appear as St Winifred’s Well on the 1888 OS at ST 742661 and although John Collinson in his 1791 The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset does mention a chapel of St. Winifred he is the only one. By the time of Dom Horne (1923) looked for it he stated that it
“been covered in and its exact position is doubtful. The water is said to be of a hard brackish nature.”
Nothing remains at Sion Hill to note it today and many people will have forgotten this interesting footnote in the local history.
“Sowey… risith… at Doulting village owte of a welle bering the name of S. Aldelm.”
John Leland in his Itinerary, c. 1540
Crocker (1796) describes it as
“a fine spring of excellent water, enclosed in a recess in an old wall, and which to this day is called St Adhelm’s well”.
William of Malmesbury tells us that St Aldhelm died at Doulting, where the church is dedicated to him, and William of Malmesbury describes his cult here in the Deeds of the Bishops of England, 1120s. However, he does not make reference to a well and as he shows interest in where the saint’s name is remembered it appears likely here were not any traditions at the time at the well. He is well known to write poetry but probably not as Caroline Sherwood in her 1994 piece for Source, the Divine Juggler of Doulting stand in the cold water and entertain his visitors juggling!
Farbrother (1859) describes how:
‘a spring… darts under cover of an arch; then it tumbles headlong over some descent… I have heard of a late learned divine, who was in the habit of walking thither from Shepton, regularly every morning, for the purpose of bathing his eyes, and whose sight was said to have been much benefited thereby’.
Glastonbury Abbey, owned the land and may have built the original structure. It is believed that in 1867, the Revd Fussell, had the wellhead and basin improved with the old dressed stone from the old church, some of the material not being used being left in the vicinity. This appeared to confuse, Dom Ethelbert Horne in his 1923 Somerset Holy Wells. He this suggested there was a wellhouse and a bath here:
‘The ground about it is strewn with dressed and well-cut stone… The water comes out under two solidly made arches… In front of these arches, a long channel or trough, originally lined with dressed stone, extends for some yards’.
Thompson & Thompson (2004) in Springs of Mainland Britain felt that the Victorian alterations:
“were probably confined to a few additional courses of stonework, on the top of which sat a cross and two finials. They can be seen in two photographs taken c.1929 but all this superstructure was later removed”.
A place of pilgrimage
Horne (1915) notes that:
“In 1896 the Stratton-on-the-Fosse village congregation made a pilgrimage to this well, and again in 1909, the year of the twelfth centenary of St Aldhelm’s death, a second and much larger pilgrimage, joined by Catholics from Wells and Shepton, made its way to Doulting.”
No such organised pilgrimages exist as far as I am aware, but Sherwood in 1994 noted that the well was under the management of the Shepton Mallet amenity Trust and stated that:
“It was customary until recently to use the well water for all christenings…Fred Davis, of the Amenity Trust, told me that less than ten years ago a Shepton woman of his acquaintance bathed her child’s severe eczema with the water from the well and the condition cleared… The well continues to be a place of pilgrimage and, from time to time, local people have decorated it with flowers and candles.”
Today it is still much visited by the curious and its setting in a small copse is a delight in the spring
“the most beautiful of the Holy wells of Somerset.”
Here in this small community, consisting of a manor house, associated farm and pleasing church, is a delightful find: an ancient conical well house called St. Agnes’ Well (ST 184 318 ) which in 1994 was swamped by tall horsetails and covered in fernery and herbs, which lent a rustic and mysterious feel to the site. Removing the surrounding vegetation will reveal more of this little six foot high conical stone structure. It resembles many such sites encountered in Cornwall, and one can agree with Horne (1923), as noted above who describes it as ‘the most beautiful of the Holy wells of Somerset’. The earliest reference is Jeboult in A General Account of West Somerset (1873):
“Near Cothelstone old Manor House is a fine spring of water, said to have been named St Agnes’ Well, and to have possessed excellent curative and cooling properties.”
Its water is accessed via an arched doorway on the west side, believed by Horne ( 1923 ) to show clearly its Perpendicular origins ( although there is no written evidence.) Once opening the small wooden door, one can see that a large volume of clear shallow water. According to Horne ( 1923 ) the water rises from the centre and flows under the step to an underground channel some distance to emerge as a large pool : obviously for livestock. A pipe leads out of the well indicating that it is directly tanked for farm use. Horne (1923) describes it as:
“A little stone building about six feet square… There is a doorway on the west side, well made, with a cut stone head. Inside, the whole floor is covered with shallow clear water, which rises about the centre and flows out under the door-step. It then follows an underground channel for some little distance, when it comes to the surface and forms a fairly large pond”.
Tongue (1965 ) adds that the well was once visited by lovers, usually on St Agnes’ Eve to find their futures. Palmer (1973) in Somerset Folklore notes some of the folklore of the site:
“It was thought necessary to leave a coin, usually silver… It was lucky if the coin fell flat, though sometimes tradition held that if the coin fell to the left the answer was no, but if it went to the right the wish was granted.”
Please don’t know as the water is used for a domestic supply! A stream nearby was called the Pixie Stream and it was thought that the well was where pixies lived!:
“It was said to have been a wishing well of considerable power, but many local people wouldn’t use it because it was also the place where mischievous pixies lived The waters are thought to be good for sore eyes and sprains, as well as for finding a husband, but only if you are not married! Once an old maid servant“coming to the end of her womanhood” did long for a husband and children. She did not wish to worry St Agnes when there were so many younger maids needing husbands. St Agnes had different ideas. When the old maid visited the well, her future husband just happened to be out walking that same night! Within a year they were married with children! The night before the feast of St Agnes (20th January) is when maidens would creep over to the well after dark to whisper their heart’s desires, hoping to see romantic visions of their future husbands! If St Agnes “do fancy the maiden she’ll send a husband that year!”
However, Harte (2008) in his English Holy Wells believes these traditions are spurious and possibly I suggest Victorian in date. Indeed, it may date from the time of Edward Stawel who married an Agnes, daughter of John Cheyney of Pinhoe Devon during the reign of Henry VII. The well may be simple called Agnes Well, there is an Agnes Well in the Selworthy estate in Somerset..interestingly this too has been ‘canonised’. It seems likely that the well was associated with the saint in the 1800s in a reverse of the secularisation of holy wells elsewhere.
In 1987 the Friends of The Quantocks repaired the Well but by the 1990s when I visited it was looking very forlorn. Fortunately in the 2000s the landowner, a Mr Hugh Warmington agreed to a full restoration and a group was formed to restore it using funding from the Quantock Hills Sustainable Development Fund and using the scheme to help the employment prospects for adults with learning disability. With permission from the County Archaeologist a small dig was made to find if there was an original base. By 2008 the progress of repair and improvement was already well on its way.
By 2009 a sign had been set up and a kissing gate. Leaflets were produced and a medieval fayre was established in September 2009 in a field opposite the well. All in all, raising interest and knowledge of this delightful site.
A stone channel and basin was created with the water flowing into this space and towards the river. During the restoration the most splendid find was an engraved stone with the words St. Agnes and a small cross, probably by the look of it from a Victorian restoration. Finally in 2015 the following was reported:
“£8,700 Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant for promotion of the heritage and restoration of the surrounding area of the well in partnership with Land-based Studies students from Bridgwater College. Bishop’s Lydeard Parish Council also kindly donated towards the project. The initiative is thought to be the only project of its kind in the country.”
Fantastic news and hopefully this will be the trailblazer for future restorations. Find out more at www.wellobsessed.com. (be careful who you copy and paste the website by the way!) http://www.wellobsessed.com/HolyWellsLeaflet.pdf
“Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty [my] bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to him who has done me wrong, whether man or woman or whether slave or free unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple.”
So translates a thin lead rectangular sheet one of 130 found in 1979-80 in the hot spring at Bath, deposited in the shrine of Sulis Minerva, the Goddess of the spring. Theses so called curse tablets were written with a stylus in a cursive script and then rolled up with the writing innermost. Sometimes these sheets are nailed interestingly the word defixio being translated into fasten and curse! Sometimes the words are written backwards or lines written in alternating directions called asboustrophedon in Greek.
Interestingly, all bar one of the 130 concerned curses to do with stolen goods, so called ‘prayers for justice’. Thefts from Roman baths appeared to be a common problem and goods from gemstones, jewellery to clothing were stolen. Often the ‘victim’ was the perpetrator of a crime and the curse would range from sleep deprivation to death. For example:
“To the goddess Sulis Minerva. I ask your most sacred majesty that you take vengeance on those who have done [me] wrong, that you permit them neither sleep…”
Sometimes the curse would be more detailed in its instruction:
“Docilianus [son] of Brucerus to the most holy goddess Sulis. I curse him who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, that .. the goddess Sulis inflict death upon .. and not allow him sleep or children now and in the future, until he has brought my hooded cloak to the temple of her divinity.”
“ To Minerva the goddess Sulis I have given the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood.”
This named the culprits:
“I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. It is for the goddess to exact [them] from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola,”
“Whether pagan or Christian, whether man or woman, whether boy or girl, whether slave or free whoever has stolen from me, Annianus [son of] Matutina (?), six silver coins from my purse, you, Lady Goddess, are to exact [them] from him. If through some deceit he has given me…and do not give thus to him but reckon as (?) the blood of him who has invoked his upon me.”
So curses appeared a little extreme considering:
“Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds [sic] and eyes in the goddess’ temple.”
The inscriptions follow a general formula, suggesting perhaps that there was a commercial scribe more than probable as many people were illiterate around that time. The formula was as follows the stolen property was declared and transferred to the deity so it becomes their loss, the suspect and victim are named and then the later asks for punishment to induce the theft back. The language is interesting being in Latin lettering but in a Romano-British hybrid, some argue some may be Celtic. The tablets are on show in the excellent Roman Bath museum for all to wonder at this curious custom.
My attention was first brought to this curiously named well in Janet and Colin Bord’s excellent Sacred Waters, then I traced the quote to Ruth Tongue’s 1965 Somerset Folklore. However neither sources gave any idea of whether it was extant but both state it was near the church (of course Tongue’s work is the original source no doubt). A few years later I found myself in Bishop’s Lydeard and thought I’d look for it. I found the church and in a lane nearby I found a fish and chip shop. I asked there and they said although they had never heard of the well, there was a well down the lane. A few yards down and there it was. An elderly lady was walking past as I peered in and I asked her if she knew the name of the well..”Devil’s whispering well” she replied.
But why the Devil?
One theory underlined by the name is that one could commune with Old Nick. And the structure could lend support to this bizarre usage. The well is a red brick structure with an arched entrance, but oddly with the well’s basin is to the side of the structure rather being face on like most wells, so we could whisper? But why whisper to the Devil? One possible reason is that the well is a cursing well. As a cursing well it would not be unique countrywide. Indeed, the most well documented site is less than 100 miles away at Bath. But are the two connected? Bath’s reputation comes from the discovery of a hoard of cursing tablets There appease to be no evidence of a Roman connection to the settlement that I am aware of, but then again the other well known site St Elian’s Well in Llanelian similarly does not have a Roman connection.
Walling in the Devil Is it possible that the cursing aspect is a confused red herring? This is suggested by another possible original is recorded in an article in the Local Notes and Queries of the Somerset Herald of the 31st August 1935:
“Walling in the Devil at Bishop’s Lydeard – many years ago, when I was a child , I remember hearing my grandmother say that the Devil kept appearing near a well at Bishop’s Lydeard, where some men were building. They were very frightened and went to the clergyman and asked him what to do. He promised to go with them when they thought he would appear again and he did so. When Satan appeared in the form of an ordinary man, but with a cloven hoof, the clergy man approached and said ‘In the name of the father, the son and the Holy Ghost, why troublest thou me?’ and he gradually disappeared and the clergy man told the workman to ’wall him in’. So they built round the place, and he disappeared forever. I have always had the impression it was somewhere along the wall opposite Lydeard House. I wonder if anyone else had heard of it? I know my grandmother used to say they walled in the Devil at Bishop’s Lydeard – H”
What does this legend mean? Was it that the Devil was walled up and that’s why you could whisper to him? A reply came a month later and printed in the 28th September edition, where an Isabel Wyatt suggests
“One or two features of this legend suggest the interesting possibility that it may originally have had quite a different significance from the one which we read into now. In the middle ages a person walled into masonary while still alive was one of the punishments for witchcraft; thus in 1222 an old woman and a young man was accused of witchcraft were sentenced by Stephen Langton, then Archbishop of Canterbury, to be plastered alive into a wall.”
She goes on to suggest that the Devil is not the real Devil, but a human devil who was the chief of each witches coven. Witches are associated with other wells in the county, indeed not that far away at Parlestone Common on the Quantocks. This makes some sort of sense as witchcraft is strong in the region. Is it possible that the head of a coven was walled up in the well and members of the surviving coven would visit them and whisper to them? Or is the walling up part of another legend as the first correspondent suggests. Perhaps the well was a well associated with the witches. This might explain why the well was never Christianised despite close proximity to the church. Perhaps this well was their ritual well, a pagan well escaping rededication despite the proximity of the church. What do we make of Palmer (1975) who details in his Folklore of Somerset that Snell (1903) give details from Thornton’s Reminiscences of an old West County Countryman tells of a black dog in the village?
When the foundations of the Grand Pump room were made in 1790, some strange pieces of a unique carving were discovered. Thought to represent a Gorgon’s head, it is said to have been sculptured by Gaulish artists around the first century AD and believed to hang over the entrance to the temple.
What is this image of?
One intretation is that the head, with its beard and thick moustache is surrounded by snakes . The Gorgon of course was killed by Perseus with the aid of Athene and significantly Minerva, part of the goddess complex of Sulis Minerva, is her Roman equivalent. This seems quite appropriate especially as the carving also appears to show wings which is commonly shown in Medusa images.
But wait a minute Medusa is female it is clearly a man!! I have another interpretation. I believe that this is a water god and the flowing serpents are not that but flowing water. I cannot clearly see any snake mouths. Certainly the face looks very Celtic, expectedly if it was carved in Gaul! So who is it? Well clearly it must be the original Celtic God of Sulis before its attachment to its female side – Minerva. Whatever, the real origin, we shall perhaps never know, but clearly the power of this image, reproduced in the shop many times is still evocative.