Category Archives: Staffordshire
Mermaids are traditionally thought of as a marine phenomena but there are a number of freshwater accounts such as that noted in Herefordshire, three in Suffolk (Bury St Edmunds, Rendelsham, Fornham All Saints) and another in Gloucestershire at Timsbury. The peak district probably because of its remote and desolate landscape claims two!
The first is associated with the Black or Blake Mere a small pond of irregular shape, lying in a little hollow on the summit of the high hill of Morridge, about three and a half miles. from Leek in Staffordshire. The pond appears to have a reputation of being haunted. In the pages of The Reliquary, Camden quoting Nicham, says it is:
“A lake that with prophetic noise doth roar; Where beasts can ne’er be made to venture o’er— By hounds, or men, or fleeter death pursued, They’ll not plunge in, but shun the hated flood.”
Robert Plot in his 1689 Natural History of Staffordshire notes that:
“no Cattle will drink of it, no bird light on it, or fly over it; all which are as false as that it is bottomless; it being found upon admeasurement, scarce four yards in the deepest place; my horse also drinking, when I was there, as freely of it as ever I saw him in any other place; and the Fowls are so far from declining to fly over it, that I spoke with several that had seen Geese upon it; so that I take this to be as good as the rest, notwithstanding the vulgar disrepute it lies under.”
Neither account mentions a mermaid and it is unclear when this creature is first applied to the site. One of the first accounts perhaps is Charlotte S. Burne 1896 notes in her “What Folkore is, and how it is to be collected” in the North Staffordshire Naturalists’ Field Club, Annual Report and Transactions. Two origins for the existence of this mermaid are given. One account states that she was a women ,who during a stormy night was drowned there by her lover after he discovered she was pregnant with his child. Another story suggests that she was a witch and was drowned by the local people. It is said that as she drowned she cursed the person who accused her and days later he was found clawed to death in the pool. Local people state that she can be seen combing her hair and enticing people to their death. She is also said to have warned locals who were draining the lake to check its depth by threatening to flood the local town of Leek – they subsequently stopped!
Perhaps the more famous of the Peak’s merfolk is found in The Mermaid’s Pool a mysterious pool at the foot of Kinder Scout, a strange site which appears to be a relic of pre-Christian water worship particular as the water is said to have healing qualities. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells notes:
“There is a local tradition that a beautiful nymph ….who comes to bathe daily in the Mermaid’s Pool, and that the man who has the good fortune to see her whilst bathing will become immortal.”
It is likely that Hope is sourcing Henry Kirke’s 1869 article “The Mermaid’s Pool” in The Reliquary notes:
“At Old Oak Wood, near Hayfield, Derbyshire, is the Mermaid’s Pool, where a beautiful woman is said to enter the water every day, and whoever has the good luck to see her will become immortal and will never die.”
Hope records a tradition of someone who had seen the mermaid thus:
“The old folk of Hayfield, moreover, have a long story of a man who, sometime in the last century, went from Hayfield over the Scout, and was lucky enough to meet this mountain nymph, by whom he was conducted to a cavern hard by. Tradition adds that she was pleased with this humble mortal, and that he lingered there for some time, when she conferred on him the precious gift of immortality.”
The best time to find visit the Mermaid’s Pool is midnight on Easter eve when she could favour you with your wishes, but if she did not favour you she will drag you to your death!
It is possible of course that local production of methane gases produced willo-the-wisps which were seen as the mermaid but that would ruin a good story would it not? Or perhaps you might argue that someone caught the said mermaid and put it in Buxton museum! – go along and have a look!
St Chad’s Well at Stowe on the edge of Lichfield is perhaps one of the few such named wells with a direct link to the saint. The site has a more direct link as Thomas Dugdale’s 1817 County of Warwickshire states in his translation of the death of Saints Wulfade and Rufinus based on 14th century text that Wulfade the son of the pagan king Wulfhere of the Mercians was hunting when he pursued a white hart, and the wounded stag took him to the hermitage of St Chad:
“which he had built within the thickets of the wood on the edge of a spring, so that he might throw himself into its waters to overpower the heaviness of sleep and reawaken himself with its cold”.
St Chad took advantage of the occasion to preach to the prince, telling him that:
“as the hart desireth the water brooks, so he should seek after the cool grace of baptism, and Wulfade, converted by this analogy, consented to be baptised from the well. Rufinus soon followed the same course. At first his father was angry and killed his sons, but afterwards he repented and gave nobly to the Church. “
According to Simon Gunton’s 1686 History of Peterburgh Cathedral there were windows in the cloisters of Peterborough Cathedral, accompanied by mottoes apparently of the fifteenth century which told how
‘the Hart brought Wulfade to a Well and ‘That was beside Seynt Chaddy’s Cell.”
John Floyer discussing St Chad in his 1702 Essay to prove cold bathing both safe and useful proposes that:
“the Well near Stow, which may bear his Name, was probably his Baptistery, it being deep enough for Immersion, and conveniently seated near that Church; and that has the Reputation of curing Sore Eyes, Scabs, &c. as most Holy Wells in England do”.
Robert Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells states that the water was thought to be dangerous to drink because it caused fits. Septimus Sunderland’s 1915 Old London’s Baths, Spas and wells also met a woman who looked after the well who said that it still had a reputation for bad eyes and rheumatism and was known as a Wishing Well. Thomas Harwood in his 1806 The History and Antiquities of the Church and City of Lichfield states that at the well it was adorned with:
“…boughs, and of reading the gospel for the day, at this and at other wells and pumps, is yet observed in this city on Ascension Day.”
However, by the time of Langford (1896) he noted that it was but sadly shorn of its ancient glory. According to Skyking Walters’ 1928 Ancient Wells and Springs of the Cotswolds, the site was still decorated with flowers on Ascension Day, a tradition which continues today in a modern form similar to that seen in Derbyshire. The site despite being in the grounds of an Anglican church was the site of Catholic pilgrimages from 1922 until the 1930s (although an Anglican one visited in 1926)
In his Itinerary of c. 1540 (published 1906–10), John Leland reports that:
“Stowchurche in the est end of the towne, whereas is St Cedd’s well, a thinge of pure water, where is sene a stone in the bottom of it, on the whiche some say that Cedde was wont nakyd to stond on in the water, and pray.”
The stone mentioned by Leland was still there or a version of it in the 1830s as it was shown to any visitors who visited the site and appears to have had its own significance in cures and rituals at the well.
The tour diary of John Loveday, 1732 (published 1890) states in reference to Stowe church that:
“near it, in a little garden is St Chad’s Well, its Water is good for sore Eyes; it is of different colours in a very little time, as They say.”
According to the V.C.H. (1908–84), the well was cleaned in 1820 by the churchwardens as it had become only six feet deep and the supply of water had become reduced by the draining of local water meadows. The well basin itself had become filled up with mud and in 1830 a local physician James Rawson built an octagonal stone structure over the well bemoaning in the Gentlemen’s magazine in 1864:
“Whatever the well might have been originally, it had, by the year 1833, degenerated into a most undignified puddle, more than six feet deep . . .
…..from two men of far-advanced age, in the year 1833, I learned that the supply of clear water around the well had become much lessened by the drainage of the lower meadows during the latter part of the eighteenth century, At all events, by the date
first named here, the well-basin had become filled up with mud and filth; and on top of this impurity a stone had been placed was described by the sight-showers as the identical stone on which St Chad used to kneel and pray!
For my own part, hoping by means of a public subscription to procure a new supply of water for the site of this ancient baptistry . . . I endeavoured to exclude the surface water of the old marsh land from the well, because of this surface water being loaded with orchre: and, as a feeder for the well, a supply of clear water was carefully obtained from the rock at a moderate distance, for close to the well a running sand became an impediment to the work. Over the well an octagonal building was erected with a saxon-headed doorway, and a stone roof surmounted by a plain Latin cross .”
It is interesting how a tradition soon built up around this new structure. Langford (1896) notes how wishes would be granted by placing one’s hand on a granite stone built into the well house, which was said to be that originally used by St. Chad.
By the early 1920s, the supply dried up and the well was lined with brick and a pump was fitted over the well and a special service was held in 1923 by the rector to officially open the pump. This created a revival. Catholic pilgrimages begun each year from 1922 to the 1930s and even an Anglican pilgrimage in 1926.
However by 1941 the well had become derelict, and after a commission set up by the Bishop of Lichfield it was restored in the 1950s, unfortunately replacing the 1840 octagonal structure with an open structure with a tiled roof (with R. Morrell in his 1992 Source article calls the Stowe bandstand). And so St Chad’s Well remains, not perhaps the most romantic of structures, but a link to those early Christian times.
Just a small distance from the highly visited Dovedale is a sacred landscape of hermitage, holy well and shrine. Ilam boasts a rarity in England a largely intact shrine with its foramina (holes in which the pilgrim could insert ailing limbs and get closer to the holy person). The shrine is that of Beorhthelm or Bertelin, Bettelin or more commonly Bertram. The patron saint of the county town of Staffordshire, Stafford.
Who was Bertram?
Bertram is an interesting local saint, dating from around the 7th-8th century in what was the Mercia. Briefly, he is said to be of Royal Irish lineage but after making a princess pregnant, escaped to England where he sheltered in the woods around Ilam. The story is told by Alexander, a monk, in the 13th century who notes:
“They were in hiding in a dense forest when lo ! the time of her childbirth came upon them suddenly ; born of pain and river of sorrow! A pitiful child bed indeed! While Bertellinus went out to get the necessary help of a midwife the woman and her child breathed their last amid the fangs of wolves. Bertellinus on his return imagined that this calamity had befallen because of his own sin, and spent three days in mourning rites”.
As a result he became a hermit living in a cave in the valley near Ilam. Despite the earliest mention being Plot, the local geography is suggestive that this is the site of an early Christian hermitage site, although no mention of a well is noted in his legends it can be noted. The cave itself still exists but reaching it appears to be problematic. Only being accessible when the river Manifold dries which suggests a very useful hermitage site. However, it is worth noting that some accounts have the cave being Thor’s cave further up. Perhaps this is significant as it suggests a Christianisation of a pagan site.
One well up on the hillside has perhaps the greatest provena is surrounded on four sides by varying low stone walling, about two feet or so at its highest (although it appears to have been built up and down over the time I have visited the well). The spring flows from a small, less than a foot square chamber, enclosed in stone and set into the bank through a channel in the rubble flow and out along the path towards it.
Since the 1990s, on the first Saturday in August, the Orthodox Church makes a pilgrimage to the site and blesses the well.
Interestingly, literature available from the National Trust shop fails to mention this well, but notes a more substantial second St Bertram’s Well. This is close by the church and surrounded by a rectangular stone wall with steps down, the water arises here at greater speed and flows into the nearby River Manifold. Visually it is more impressive and more accessible but whether there is any long tradition of this second well is unclear, but authors such as the Thompsons’s (2004) The Water of Life: Springs and Wells of Mainland Britain and Bord (2008) Holy Wells of Britain appear to have fostered its reputation.
Little is recorded of the wells, but Browne (1888) in his An Account of the Three Ancient Cross Shafts, the Font, and St Bertram’s Shrine, at Ilam, noted that the ash had gone, but the water was still being used. He states that:
“The late Mrs Watts Russell always had her drinking water from it.”
Since the 1990s, on the first Saturday in August, the Orthodox Church makes a pilgrimage to the site and blesses the well. Interestingly, literature available from the
More is recorded is rather curious. Plot (1686) in his The Natural History of Stafford-Shire, the earliest reference of this fascinating site and he records that a
“St Bertram’s Ash… grows over a spring which bears the name of the same Saint… The common people superstitiously believe, that tis very dangerous to break a bough from it: so great a care has St Bertram of his Ash to this very day. And yet they have not so much as a Legend amongst them, either of this Saint’s miracles, or what he was; onely that he was Founder of their Church”
Such ash trees are commonly associated with holy wells. It is worth noting that in North myth, the sacred Yggdrasil was an ash tree associated with divination and knowledge. In some places rags would be tied to such trees but no such record exists here. By the late 1800s as noted in A general collection of voyages and travels digested by a J. Pinkerton in 1808 that the:
“Ash tree growing over it which the country people used hold in great veneration and think it dangerous to break a bough from or his in the church which are mentioned by Plot I did not hear of it at the village.”
Thus suggesting by that time it had gone by this time
A final observation is that in the 1800s a Roman relic found there:
“In the parish of Ilam near the spring called St Bertram’s there was found an instrument of brass somewhat resembling only larger a lath hammer at the edge end but not so the other This Dr Plot has described in the XXIII Tab 6 This he takes to have been the head of a Roman Securis which the Papoe slew their sacrifices.”
Does this suggest that sacrifices were made at the spring by the Romans?
As part of my research for the forthcoming Holy wells and healings springs of Staffordshire I sought out the existence of two sulphurous wells in the Parish of Codsall. The first of these was called the Brimstone Well a wonderfully evocatively named site. However despite some early sketches it appears to be largely forgotten. One illustration shows a circular rough stone well head among leafy foliage in the William Salt Collection. An account locates it as:
“Halfway up the road between Wheatstone Park and Pendrell Hall is a sulphur spring – the medical properties of the water being noted in Plot’s ‘Natural History of Staffordshire’ (1898)…Sometimes the water oozes through the tarmac surface of the road.”
There did not appear to be any well head matching the description between the two locations, although there was a rush lined pool close by. Enquires made in the hamlet of Codsall Wood failed to locate the site and apparently it has been lost. I traversed the area for some time up and down the lanes and concluded that.
The other is more famed, being the Leper’s Well by comparison it was easy to locate, especially as I had the company of Kate Gomez author of the excellent Little Book of Staffordshire and Lichfield Lore blog. This was another site according to Plot (1696) which is:
“sated with sulphurous particles; for it always emits a sulphurous smell: and in winter, and sometimes against rain, the odour is so strong, that, with the advantage of the wind, one may smell it now and then at least 23 yards off. Moreover, so volatile is it, and so little restrained, that when set over the fire, it flies away so fast, that the water quickly loses its smell.”
Plot (1696) continues:
“In ancient times, when leprosies were frequent, this water was accounted a sovereign remedy for such as were troubled with that foul distemper; and for whose better accommodation there was a house built near it, which retains to this day the name of the Leper House. This water is in use at present against scabs and itch, both in man and beast, and purges both by ‘siege and urine. It not only rakes the body within, but most effectually drives forth all ill humours, and sometimes it vomits, according to the constitutions of the patients, who commonly drink about three quarts at a time. Less, scarce works except by vomit, where it meets with weak stomachs.”
This Leper House now a small farm still exists a few yards above the well on the other side of the road. Plot also notes continues to note that the inhabitants hereabout brew their drink with this water, especially at that which they call the Brimstone Alehouse; and boil their meat with it. Upon which it is observed, that none of them are ever troubled either with scabs or itch, or such like cuticular diseases.
William Pitt in his 1817 A Topographical History of Staffordshire notes that the spring arose, up through the hollow stump of a tree, and runs down the road, leaving a yellowness on the moss resembling flour of brimstone: in warm dry weather it emits a sulphurous exhalation. However, this is clearly not the Leper well but if the sketch in the Salt collection is to be believed the Sulphur well. It was also noted that well dressing seems to have been customary in the area, however which wells and when is unclear not when it ceased. The well is a keyhole shaped stone lined well now enclosed by a fence for safety reasons. A large ash tree found over the well in the 1990s appears to have been felled probably because its roots were damaging the fabric or generally unsafe. The water is covered with thick duckweed but when disturbed there is a clear smell of sulphur. Around four steps can be traced on the east side of the well and it is probably considering the size that the well was designed for bodily immersion. This would of course link with the idea of its use by lepers. The only disadvantage is the barbed wire. I jumped over for a closer look and tore my trousers but that was preferable to being as pixy led as I was finding the Brimstone well.
Search Staffordshire Past website and the photo below can be found St. Edith’s Well. The picture shows something which composes of a well chamber enclosed in a wicker fence having a thatched rectangular roof placed upon it. This structure was supposedly designed and built in the 1950s and indeed field investigators for the Department of Environment in 1958 noted:
“St Edith’s Well is a rectangular water-filled stone basin, 2.1 m by 1.5 m, apparently recently restored; a flight of steps descends into the water. It is covered by a modern openwork timber structure with a thatched roof. Coins are still thrown into this well and several were seen on the bottom.”
Tim Cockin in his 1992 article One country man to another in The Countryman records that the well house was built and thatched by a Tommy Brayne, the landlord of the village pub, in about 1950, with the encouragement of the people at the manor house. Today this is not the case. The site is well-known enough to find a place in Janet and Colin Bord’s seminal 1985 work Sacred Waters where they record:
“As it is on private land, permission to visit it should be sort by the nearby farm. The rectangular stone basin is covered by a thatched timber structure. The well was visited for eye problems and the King’s Evil, and visitors still throw coins into the water.”
Armed with this book during a visit in the 1990s, I did indeed visit the nearby farm and was greeted by a ‘why would you want to visit that then’ response. However, I was granted access and directed across the fields. Nearby farm was clearly in relative terms! Despite the author’s note what I found was a well in a very sorry state.
Much of the superstructure from the photo had gone. Sadly, it was a rather dilapidated well structure, consisting of what was clearly, although I probably didn’t realise at the time, that fallen wooden structure laying over a brick-lined rectangular pool where steps into the structure could just be traced. It was still there but was not perhaps as spectacular as I expected.
The well is first mentioned in 1696 by Francis Plot in his History of Staffordshire he notes:
“many other waters…performe unaccountable Cures…the water of… St Ediths well… in the parish of Church Eyton.”
The well has some curious local traditions. One stating that the waters did not cause rusting. One I had not heard of before and possible being unique. As stated by the Bords it was good for eyes and the Kings Evil. The Victorian County History records a local legend notes that near this well was the site originally chosen for the church but that, but the stones brought there by mule-back by day were removed to the present site by night. This parish church was dedicated to St Edith by the nuns of Polesworth Abbey after it had been granted to them in about 1170, although whether this because a local St. Edith, rather than that associated with Kemsing Kent, or not is unclear. Interestingly according to Cockin (1992) records that the Bishop of Chester visited the well to bless it, and its water was used for baptisms by the family at the manor house.
Save St Edith’s Spring
The problem being clearly as I found in the 1990s this is not the best positioned holy well. In the middle of a field, several fields in from the road with no clear route to it and no holy well. I can more than understand the farmer not wanting hoards of curious onlookers crossing fields to have a look. However, that does not explain or justify the deplorable state of the well. According to Tim Prevett on Megalithic portal it has been allowed to fall derelict since the late 1980s despite pleas from the local Parish council and the site is slowly perhaps being forgotten. He states:
“Speaking to the church warden and flower arranger at St Edith’s they said the well had been largely been forgotten by the village, and were unsure in what condition it would be found. Also, permission needs to be gained to visit, I think from a bungalow just next to the canal side nearest the well, having left Church Eaton”
Speed forward another 20 years or so I have learnt things have not improved. The local concerns were sadly true; thanks to some locals I was provided with the opportunity of an update, although I note it is away from footpaths and on private land so I am not recommending you trespass. Much of the wood has been cleared, although some sections remain, but it is long beyond repair. The well chamber is still full of water, albeit sluggish and algae covered. Steps could be seen however. We must be thankful that its fabric remains but surely some compromise can be reached to save this notable Staffordshire well.
For more information on Staffordshire’s holy wells look out for
Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Staffordshire – forthcoming
One of the great pleasures in researching our sacred springs is the field work. In a world where the internet is said to have all the answers and this blog is just as responsible for forwarding the information, it might be surprising to find that not all the information is available. As I am close to completing my work on Staffordshire Holy Wells and the weather is getting nicer I thought it as a good idea to share one of the more interesting sites.
A few years back at the beginning of my Staffordshire research I came across a site a Wombourne. The site according to Hope’s Legendary Lore of Holy Wells (1893) was a spring was ‘known by the name of “Our Lady’s Well” or “Lady Well”. Hope (1893) states:
“Another famous local well, which has fortunately escaped the destructive hand of time, is that near Wombourne, known by the name of Our Lady’s Well, or Lady Well. It is cut out of the solid rock, which crops out at the top of a lofty hill, situate between Wombourne and Lower Fenn. The well is of considerable antiquity, and several species of cryptogrammic plants give to the surface of the stone a venerable appearance. It is supposed to have been sacred to the virgin in mediæval times, and its waters to have possessed curative properties. Here, ages ago, a holy hermit is said to have dwelt, and to have been visited by many persons in search of consolation and instruction. The well is still a favourite resort of local pleasure-seekers, who go to drink of the cooling and delicious beverage, and ruralize in the adjacent wood.”
Of course in the last 130 odd years quite a lot has happened. Wells drained, filled in or absorbed into the domestic supply. Land urbanised, agriculture changes boundaries and forests torn from the landscape…so it can be very unlikely for a well to survive.
The first place to look is always the current ordnance survey map however, no well is marked on the current OS one but the name Lady Well Wood is still marked. This concurs with the field-name Ladywell Hill on the 1840 Tithe map. Being a wood is a good sign as the pressures of building and agriculture are less likely to have had an impact. Better still on the 1883 OS map W is marked beneath Ladywell cottages on the escarpment. However, there might propose an issue. Clearly the cottages were built to utilise the water as a domestic source. Such an activity can often result in destruction as the source is tanked and modernised. I hoped for the best.
There appeared to be a footpath which based close enough, if the land was not enclosed to be useful. However, it could not be seen whether the land was enclosed in someone’s garden. This path lay up Orton Lane beside a house called Orton Springs house (although it is not signed) which passes up the hill. The name sounded promising but I think it was more likely woodland spring rather than water spring.
I climbed the hill which provided great views of the valley. Taking a right hand path I followed it as it appeared to lead to what could be the cottages. As moved closer it was very evident there were not any cottages, but the foundations were to be seen by the path. Was the well similarly destroyed? Looking at the 1883 OS the well appeared to be down the slope from them and my eye was cast that way. A few yards away was something which did not fit into the general scene, for the hill was covered by a mix of deciduous trees but there in front was a yew. A solitary yew. This appeared to be very significant was this where the well was?
I scrambled down a muddy slope, nearly losing my footing at one point and got closer to the yew. The yew was growing romantically on a rocky ledge, the only rocky ledge I could see, I scrambled closer and could see some evidence of water flowing from beneath the rocky ledge. There was definitely some water source here but would be a brick municipal structure, a simple spring or something a bit more interesting.
Peering around the rock, the spring appeared to flow into a small square brick built chamber, which appeared to probably date from before the time of Hope’s account. It was full of clear water, the stream is currently constant running from a fissure in the rock; around it are the cryptogrammic plants, mosses, growing in profusion. The spring over fills the chamber and forms a small stream which flows down the hillside. A number of names, possibly dating back from Hope’s time are carved into the rock and sadly the site has fallen afoul of graffiti artists.
A lost pagan site?
A lot of commentators construct the view that many Christian sites derive from pagan ones. Sadly, the evidence is lacking. However, here I was struck by the circumstantial evidence which appeared to point in the direction of the well being depicted to a female deity. The first piece of evidence is perhaps the name of the settlement, Wombourne, deriving from bourne meaning a stream or river but the first bit is more elusive, officially it derives from ‘valley’ but could it have a more feminine origin? Could this be the spring entering from the mother earth’s womb? The only problem being that the wom brook, thought to be the origin of the name is somewhere else. Interestingly, the VCH (1908–1984) suggest that this site is to be identified with a Wodewelle recorded near Orton in the thirteenth century, but this might easily have been a different well. If it is the same of course the name easily derived from wood, which explains its location, however it might be from Woden? Unlikely though. The second piece of evidence is the presence of the Yew tree with its roots entering the spring. Neo-pagans would see it as Yggdrasil, the sacred tree and it’s certainly significant as it is the only one, although Wombourne is a Saxon not Norse foundation. Yews were also sacred to the Celts as well. The third piece of evidence is that a holy hermit lived there, perhaps descending from some pagan wise man? The fourth that the festivities were possibly ancient in nature although Hope give no clues on dates and what actually went on.
Whatever the conjecture, the Lady’s Well is a great survival and a taster of what fascinating sites exist in the county. My work on Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Staffordshire is hopefully out this year!
I did become a bit pixy led looking for this one…it was the hottest day of the year so far, fortunately the walk to the well, or rather what I could assign to it poorly marked on the OS, was down hill! Good job as it was very hot. A long way from the weather today…
The Nun’s Well is a fascinating site. I have yet to find any concrete facts about its history, yet its local legend of a ghost which is most appealing. Legend tells that a local nun was pushed down the well and it was covered over, only to be discovered by farm labourers, some years later. As a result she has said to have haunted the area. I have been unable to neither substantiate the origins of this story or the nun in question, neither F. W. Hackwood’s 1924 work nor Jon Raven’s 1974 work, both on the folklore of the county, record a ghost or the well, despite the latter’s detailed notes on wells in the county. Only Duignan (1884) suggests a grant of Henry II to a priory of Farewell and the spring may have gained its name from then, suggesting the origin of the story. Nuns immured in wells are not unique in well folklore and it is possible that they mask a more ancient tradition.
A hidden source
This is perhaps the most hidden of all the springs and wells I have investigated. Accounts are misleading, some accounts on the web suggest it has been destroyed, but that is far from true. It is however, difficult to come across for the well arises beside, not under as some accounts state, an oak tree. Despite having a photos of the said tree I walked past it and went into the wood beyond which led to the Nun’s well car park..which was locked! I followed my instincts and took a path which looked well trod, but led to the edge of the wood but to a man mowing a lawn. After disturbing him, in more ways than one, he said he did not know where exactly it was but it was not here! Tracking my route back I noticed the tree I passed had a blue sign upon it:
“Nun well. End of permissive path.”
I had found my tree and the well. This tree was surrounded by a small white fence which I at first feared may have been electrified. It wasn’t fortunately. However the area was surrounded by tall nettles. I gently lay them down so that I could have a look for the well.
More substantial than first thought
I found the narrow hole described by Tim Prevett on Megalithic Portal, with one or two bricks around it and thinking this was the only hole used by 33mm camera to get some shots. This is a bit disappointing if it’s the only viewing point. However, it was only when I took some shots upwards to capture I thought the chamber’s roof that I noticed I had taken a shot of sky. There was another viewing area! Sure enough the other side of the tree was a much larger opening about two feet square which was covered with boughs for safety. Removing one or two of these boughs (replacing them back afterwards) I could see a better view of the well. The first aspect I observed was the remains of a brick arch and it was clear that well was still partly covered by a barrel roof made of bricks which was in quite good condition. Using my SLR camera I took some shots. From these it is clear that the chamber is quite a large one, partly cut from the sandstone rock from which the spring arises, although some of this wall appears to be made of dressed stand stone blocks, particularly at the back I thought. Towards the front a piece of corrugated iron and some barbed wire has been placed there, when it is difficult to gage but it must have done by someone in the well chamber and presumably to prevent the earth back filling. The brick work is said to be 16th century and came from a local iron works. The tree’s roots have clearly grown partly over the roof at some time and causing it to collapse resulting in the rubble of stones around and the large hole to the north of the tree. One could climb down into the well but I thought twice, one could I climb out? Probably. Secondly, peering down the well I felt a little disquiet. Had I disturbed the nun?
The well contained a considerable amount of water which was quite clear despite the considerable amount of debris and leaf litter within. Access the water is difficult and one needs to stretch so clearly access was better from the front before the tree. Despite this its waters were said to cure eyes.
An interesting site pity despite the park being named after it no one thought of putting an information sign up!
Taken and amended from Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Staffordshire – forthcoming 2015.
I am plough ahead with my work on Staffordshire, some fascinating sites there. Here are some well known and not so well known sites…all worthy of investigation.
A small village just outside of Leek lies the Egg Well (SK 005 540), a secular healing well which have been developed into a local spa but exact details are difficult to find. Local tradition believes that the site was used by the Roman, but the older fabric was set in place by William Stanley, the owner of Ashenhurst Hall between 1744 and 1752. On the basin is his monogram and an interesting Latin inscription which reads:
“Renibus, et splenui cordi, jecorique medatur, Mille maelsi prodest ista salubris aqua.”
The translation being:
“The liver, kidneys, heart’s disease these waters remedy. And by their healing powers assuage full many a malady.”
The name of the well is curious; it could refer to the shape of the basin, but could also refer to sulphurous waters although I could not detect a smell. Today, a rather ugly 19th century brick built structure surrounds this stone lined bath shaped structure, this was roofed at a later date.
South of the town east of the Cheddleton road is the delightful but little known Lady Well or Lady o’ th’ Dale well (SJ 887 145). It was called the Weaver’s Well. The age of this well is difficult VCH (1996) records that it was named in the Middle Ages, it is recorded as Lady Wall Dale in the late 16th century (1587) and there was a farm belonging to Dieulacres abbey along the Cheddleton road, but the presence of St. Mary’s RC church above the well and 19th century fabric suggests it was developed by the local Catholic community. Indeed, a May Day procession was taken by children from the church every May Day, although when it ceased is unclear. The site is grade II listed and the cartouche above the well has the 1855 and some unclear initials in Gothic writing. Its structure is rusticated ashlar 2 metre high with a slightly recessed niche below originally a water spout collecting water from the spring through which water still flows.
The spout is made of a worn circular structure which may be carved head, it appears to be surrounded by stylised hair or possibly is a sun. Its waters were used for healing by local people. The approach to the well has been improved with a wooden walkway and it appears to be well preserved.
In Sugnall Park, on the edge of Bigwood, is a Holy or St. Catherine’s Well (SJ 798 306). The well is unmarked on the current O/S and only as W on earlier editions, where the dedication originated is unclear but it is known as such in the village and in Stafford County Archives. The well is source of a small brook which flows to fill Cop Mere. It is covered by small square sandstone well house with pyramidal roof. The roof was said to have been surmounted by cross of which only base remains, but there does not appear to be any evidence of breakage. The well looks like an ‘improvement’ made when the estate was developed in the 1700s with a Gothick boathouse and walled garden. The well is thought to date from 1770 when a temple was constructed in the park. It has been given a grade II listing.
Uttoxeter boasts a very interesting holy well called variously Maidens, Marian’s or Mary Well (SK 094 264). It is situated on the hill along High Wood road above the town and now enclosed in the front section of the garden of 21a Highwood Road. The spring arises in a roughly two feet wide circular well basin lined by old brickwork, Although I could see no evidence of running water, the water is nevertheless clear and the well has a sandy bottom. A mesh cover has been placed over the well to prevent leaves fouling it and it is well looked after. Its water is thought to be curative. A local legend records that it is haunted by a ghost of a young women, who may be significant, perhaps it remembers the dedication. The Rykenald Way runs past the well, suggesting a great history and indeed it is also called Maiden’s Way.
This is only the tip of a very large number of sites which have received very little coverage so please look out for the book in the future.
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.
If you park in the first car park at Greenaway Country Park past the lake, and then walk along the road taking the footpath on the left around the lake, continue until one crosses a bridge, just below the Warden’s Tower taking a path which follows a small stream, past a pond and then continue until there is a bridge on the left and just after this is a path on the right you will reach Gawton Well (SJ 898 555) voted one of the most mystical places and certainly one of the most atmospheric of Staffordshire ancient wells is found on the remains of the Kynpersely Estate.
The spring fills at first an elliptical stone basin, then a small rectangular basin and then a larger one which could have formed a bath. There is a semi-circular stone just after this and then flows through a number of large rocks forming a stream. The site has an excellent arrangement the juxtaposition between the man-made and the natural.
A druid grove?
Perhaps what makes this well one of the most evocative and interesting is the fact that it arises in an oval grove of yew trees. Some folklorists and New age Antiquarians have seen this as being evidence of some pagan origin of the well and although it is interesting that the site is unconverted to the Christian faith. However, one must be careful. Firstly the trees do not look that old and secondly the presence of a nearby Warden’s Tower, a folly suggests, that this is perhaps a 18th century piece of antiquarianism.
A hermit’s house?
This suggestion of the site being a folly may be justified by the presence of Gawton’s Stone. This is just up from the spring, being a large stone supported by three other stones. Some antiquarians identified erroneously this as either a druidic altar or megalithic structure (it would be impossible to lift the structure). However it is here that legendarily a hermit lived called Gawton who used the well. Often landowners would employ a hermit to add some romance to the estate, although the stone does not particularly look like a comfortable place. Certainly local tradition states that the man came from Knypersley Hall in the seventeenth century, although the house is 18th century and no name is recorded as living there of any note! The house itself dates from the 12th century.
Plot (1686) states that:
“There are many waters such as the water of the well at Gawton Stone…which has some reputation for the cure of the King’s evil..”
The King’s evil was a skin complaint generally called scrofula which was only thought to be cured by the touch of the reigning monarch. Now rarely do I try out springs but at this time my little boy was suffering with eczema and having tried all sorts of creams I said flippantly try some of the well’s water. I collected it from near the source in a drinking bottle, it felt unusually silky to the skin, and applied some to an area of dry peeling skin on his cheek. Remarkably by the time we had walked from the well to the car the area have healed itself rather miraculously. I only wished I had collected some more to use later, although the area on his face disappeared for good….
In all Gawton’s Well deserves to be more well known, a magical site of which my only clue to its existence before reaching it was a circle on the OS! A site which may reveal its secrets with greater research which I plan to undertake whilst preparing for the Holy wells of Staffordshire.