Category Archives: Somerset
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.
Every month this year I am covering the veneration of water in a different item, 12 in all. This month it will be the clootie or rag. As the title suggests.
Many years ago when my interest in the subject was first piqued I visited the famous Madron Well. To be honest I was not very impressed with the well; a square concreted hole in the ground, if I remember devoid of any atmosphere. No what impressed me was what was attached to the trees; hundred and thousands of bits of cloth. I had no idea why they were there but clearly there was significance to them. Soon after I purchased the Bord’s influential Sacred Waters and all was explained.
Basically, the custom would involve the piece of rag, traditionally although rarely now, a piece of clothing, being dipped upon the well’s water rubbed on the afflicted area and then hung on the tree. As this cloth rooted, so it was thought the ailment would disappear. A word on nomenclature the word clootie commonly used for the rags is a recent spread it is originally limited to Scotland.
As far as I am aware no countrywide study has been made of the distribution of the custom, but it appears largely to divided into two blocks in the British Isles. From my research, I have found no evidence of the custom in the south –east. It is traditionally absent from all the counties south of the Thames i.e Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. Similarly there appears no record in the home countries of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire, although only two of these counties have been fully studied. As we travel westward it is encountered in Somerset with Compton Martin’s Rag Well and Cornwall as well as parts of Wales, although Devon is lacking any evidence and that for Dorset appears modern (see below).
It is absent from East Anglia, which is interesting because in Lincolnshire, a county boarding Norfolk it is frequently read about. Here there are eight seven such sites and one is simply called the Ragged Springs. For example at Utterby the:
“Holy Well, on the east side of the parish, is in repute for medicinal virtues, among the vulgar, who, after using it, tie rags on the surrounding bushes, to propitiate the genius of the spring”.
Of the traditional pre-20th century sites none continue the tradition and ironically another, probably non-holy well, the Ludwell has become the focus of a modern rag leaving tradition. Interestingly, it is recorded in Nottingham, but absent from the rest of the county. Do is there any record in Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Staffordshire.
The record in Nottingham is interesting as there is confusion between the sites of the famed St. Ann’s Well and that known as the spring is called the Rag Well. To the west only Cheshire has a record. Hole (1937) noted that at Audley End a holy tree:
“those who came to the well hung rags or other offerings upon.”
Yorkshire has a number of sites, as noted above. St. Helen’s Well, Great Hatfield near Hull has a plaque reading:
“Before the sunrise, dear Helen, I stand by this spring and intreat thee, sweat saint, good health to me bring, for with eyes firmly fixed on this ancient hawthorn, see I place thee a rag from my dress today”
An early reference of one is for one is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner which describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that
“they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts”.
Most famed Yorkshire rag well was that almost lost at Thorpe Arch, where photos from the turn of the 19th century show it festooned with torn strips. Haigh (1875) says that:
“twenty years ago the Rev E. Peacopp, curate of Healaugh, informed me that shreds of linen were to be seen attached to the bushes which overhang this well”.
Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm”.
The ritual was described as having to be done before sunrise where the cloth would be dipped in the well and then tied to the tree whilst making a wish. Of St Swithin’s Well Stanley, in his Ancient Wells of Wakefield, 1822:
“when the well was open it was near the hedge on which used to be hung bits of rag with which people had washed. These were left hanging under the delusive idea that as the rags wasted away so would the part affected, which had been washed, therewith proceed to mend and become sound”.
In Durham Jarrow’s Bede Well and in Northumberland the Lady Well, Cheswick were both rag wells. However, Scotland has three of the most famous rag or cloottie wells. The most famed is that which despite the given name of St. Curidan is better known as the Clouttie well and is the one which has attracted the greatest controversy. Found in Munlochy on the A832, here rags festoon every mm of the surrounding trees and became so unsightly that the decision was taken to remove many of them and surf the bad luck! The well is particularly visited on Beltaine, the day before the 1st of May and traditionally children were left over night to cure them much like Madron’s Well.
This distribution would suggest an association with our Celtic heritage, although that perhaps is not strengthened by the Lincolnshire sites. Another theory is that it may have been a tradition associated with the Gypsy community and certainly Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and the West Country are certainly traditional grounds. However, this does not explain the absence from areas such as the New Forest in Hampshire.
An ancient tradition?
The placing of clooties is linked to Patronal days or the Christianised pagan Gaelic-Celtic feast days: Imbolc (1st February), Beltane (1st May), Lughnasadh (1st August) and Samhain (1st November). It is possibly that the clootie was an offering to a deity at the spring.
A modern tradition
Visiting holy wells across the country one is struck by the presence of rags on a wide range of sites, many of which would not have had them before I assume. I would imagine that few of the people attaching the rags or more often ribbons are doing it for memento reasons rather than healing ones, to leave something there as a token. Yet by doing so they are continuing an ancient tradition…only spoilt by the use of modern non biodegradable fabrics. This is clearly what is going on at St. Kenelm’s Well where there are clothes on a nearby bush and similarly at St. Augustine’s Well, at Cerne which according to Thompson & Thompson (2004) book on Wells of the Mainland had:
“a few coloured ribbons hang from neighbouring trees – evidently an attempt to perpetuate its memory as a rag-well”.
And so it continues. Many wells and springs beyond the natural range appear to be growing in their clottie collections. A quick look on the internet even shows a few which I have done and I can still see the ribbon, sadly it wasn’t as biodegradable as I thought! How to confuse the researcher!!
Now remarkably lying in a green oasis in some of the worst areas of industrialised Bristol is the St. Anne’s Well (ST 621 725). This lies in St Anne’s wood, which was acquired by the Bristol Corporation, and since then very little has been done thankfully to change its situation. The circular brick rounded well, was restored early this century. A suitable inscription reads:
“Wishing well, St Anne’s Well. This Holy Well was associated with the chapel of St Anne, which stood about 300yards to the NW; throughout the Middle Ages , pilgrims were made here, and especially by the sailors of Bristol, Henry VII. Visited this spot in state in 1485, and hither his Queen came in 1502.”
“The Chapel, dating from about 1392 was destroyed with Keynsham Abbey, to which it belonged, in 1539 by Henry VIII.”
William Worcester described the chapel as:
“58ft by 80ft high, with colossal square candles, renewed yearly at the Pentecost, that touched the roof nearly at the roof and cost £ 5 each. Thirteen others burnt before the image of St Anne. There were also 32 models of ships and boats, 20 shillings each, for receiving and containing offerings and sometimes to burn incense in .”
It was founded by a certain Lord de la Warr, of Brislington. One can say without doubt that the pilgrims, many of the important, must have contributed greatly to the coffers of Keynesham Abbey. A typical entry is shown in the Duke of Buckingham (1502) diary:
“ My Lord’s and my young Lady’s oblation to St Anne in the wood, seven shillings and four pence.”
The chapel was controlled by a custodian or warden. One particular individual is remembered in the Keynesham church. It reads:
“Hic Jacit Walternus Jose canonicus nuper custos capelle Sancti Anne in the Wode cujus animo propicietur alissum amen.”
From 1635-1800 the chapel was used as a pottery works when it was demolished. In 1889 action was brought about concerning a public right of way through the wood and passing the well. This footpath had been used for centuries for passing to St Anne’s Ferry, and to make pilgrimage to well and chapel. This is referred by Leland in 1542:
“At two miles above Bristow was a commune trajectus by bote (ferry boat) where was a chapel of St Anne on the same side of the Avon that Bath standeth on , and here was great Pilgrimage to St Anne.”
Interestingly none of these authors directly make reference to the well and authorities such as Harte (2008) in a magnus opus question that there was ever a holy well. This may be so, certainly the recorded history of St Anne’s Chapel being much greater than that of this well, which does not get mentioned until the 1880s, when Morris (1885) who discusses ‘the Shrine Well of St Anne’s-in-the-Wood, Brislington’. The well becoming at this time a place of pilgrimage by local Catholics who perhaps replaced the chapel as it was no longer possible to re-build or even trace its remains with the well. Indeed, it may be when as Hope (1893) notes a Father Grant cleared out the well in 1878 and found:
“some coins were found in this well… 1. Half groat, Edw.IV; 2. An abbey token; 3. A half groat, Hen.VII; 4. A Portuguese coin; 5. A reckon-penny or counter.”
By the time Hope (1893) refers to this he states that:
“The water of this well was formerly considered good for affectations of the eye”.
Horne (1923) in his Somerset Holy Wells monologue reports that the well:
“has been cleaned out to a depth of twenty feet, and the stone work at its sides is in perfect condition. The spring enters the well about six inches from the bottom, on the north side.”
According to Jones (1946) in his The Glory That Was Bristol, states that by the turn of 1900s the well was ruined again who adds:
“The writer as a boy often visited the well taking away, with others, the water for the bathing of weak eyes. Its water is used to-day for weak eyes, rheumatism, and blood impurity. “Johnny Onion Men” from Brittany made annual pilgrimages to the well till recent years… The writer commenced in 1920 a movement for the restoration of the Well”
This also resulted in the woods containing the well being given to Bristol Corporation to allow continued access to the site. Winchester (1986) in St Anne’s, Bristol: A History,, notes that:
“in front were five large stepping stones, said to be Holy Stones. The Stones were very old and worn, with deep impressions made by hundreds of feet. They were removed in 1924 but replaced… In 1926, the City of Bristol had the well covered with a picturesque canopy and surrounded by a protective wall… Few people lived in the area, but I do not think that any child passed the well without standing on the stepping stones and stirring the waters with a twig, hoping to find Queen Anne’s ring!”
Another account records that the Cordwainers:
“In May, 1939, members of the Guild with their friends and distinguished visitors made a pilgrimage to the “Holy Well” in St Anne’s Wood. They were led by the sheriff of Bristol, Colonel Lennard, who was a cordwainer.”
The fortunes of the well and its pilgrimage over the last 90 or so years have been mixed. In the 1920s a circular well was constructed with a conical tiled roof. However, the well has gone through several stages of neglect. Winchester (1986) records in 1975 that rubble filled the well with a metal disc cover over it but a local holy wells pagan group, The Source set about restoring the site and created a new circular well chamber and a statue of St. Anne, although this statue now lays prostrate. They also established a regular visit to the well. Currently, a theatre group enacting the characters of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York for a mile long community walk to the well with readings at it on the Sunday closest to the saint’s day following the ancient route.
More can be found out here, with some excellent photos and illustrations http://brislingtonarchaeology.org.uk/projects/st_anne/index.html
and https://www.facebook.com/events/133809176814235/ for the events
Copyright Pixyledpublications. Happy for photos to be used on amateur websites/blogs but please give attribution to this website. Thanks
Although January 1st, Imbolc and May 1st (or its first sunday) are associated with veneration of wells and springs and their increase in proficiency, Midsummer (Eve or Day) was a date often associated with visiting wells. Often the wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton or St John’s Well, Shenstone whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day. This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes that:
“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”
Now a lost site, it is possible that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.
Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:
“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day,
By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well;
The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”
In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.
These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:
“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”
Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire
“a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”
Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:
“People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”
When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6) in an article called Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:
“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”
Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.
The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo. This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.
Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:
“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”
Tait (1884–5) suggests that the building was:
“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”
This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. You decide.