Category Archives: Survival tradition

The Holy Well of Our Lady of Willesden

Sometimes holy wells turn up in odd locations and the survival of a site in a very urban cityscape shows how such sites can survive despite the predations! For in the church is a pump which draws its water from the newly discovered spring found in the boiler house said to be St. Mary’s Well associated with a shrine to the Blessed Virgin or Black Virgin of Willesden. The origin of the shrine is unknown, but the first mention of a statue occurs in 1249, when an inventory of church goods mentions two large sculptured images of Our Lady. Legend has it that the shrine originated due to an appearance of Our Lady Mary in the Churchyard.

The celebrated black image of Our Lady was a centre of pilgrimage until its destruction at the Reformation. In 1535 the statue was torn down and taken to Chelsea and publicly burned on the same fire as the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. Consequently, Henry VIII imposed a fine on the ‘idolatrous’ Church to be paid every year by the Priest and indeed it is clear that interest in the shrine did not wane at the destruction of the image. It is noted that a vision of the Holy Trinity was seen by a Dr. Crewkerne who in a conversation in with Our Lady, telling him to preach abroad and that she wished to be honoured at Ipswich and Willesden, as she had been once before. A restoration never happened during this period however. However, when Fr. James Dixon became Vicar in 1902, he restored the shrine and a statue of Mary and Jesus was placed in the Chancel and devotion to the shrine has been encouraged. In 1972 a new statue was made and pleased by the Bishop of London on the feast of Corpus Christi.

Of the well, J.T Gillet’s 1964 The History of Willesden notes that:

“There is a distant tradition that Our Lady appeared in an oak tree in the churchyard to a client, and that a well began to flow, at which miracles were wrought and which became noted for cures from blindness. The well was used until comparatively recent times, but then it was condemned as ‘unsanitary’ and was covered over.”  

Jeremy Harte in his 2008 English Holy Wells notes that the tradition also appears to date to 1885, and was thus probably propaganda set up by a Catholic mission was set up to revive the mediaeval Marian shrine at Willesden, although the VCH (1969–2004) take it as evidence that:

‘the church was built on the site of a holy well possibly that which gives the settlement its name, first recorded in 939 by King Athelstan.’

An alternative tradition is recorded by John Norden in 1596. Norden (1723) Speculum Britanniæ: an historical and chorographical description of Middlesex and Hartfordshire which notes in relation to Alderman Roe’s a:

“springe of faire water, which is now within the compass of house”.

However of course this does not stipulate that this is a holy well nor the exact spring. Similarly, it is likely to refer to Willesden from the Anglo-Saxon Wiell-dun – hill of springs as noted in Nicholas Schofield’s 2002 Our Lady of Willesden, a brief history of the Shrine and Parish who also state

This is said to have been associated with pilgrimages to the Virgin’s shrine. The church website notes that:

“The water from the well is used extensively to this day, for Baptisms, anointing and mixing with the wine in the Chalice. On Saturday 4 July 1998, at the Annual Willesden Pilgrimage, a new Holy Well was dedicated enabling the healing Waters of Willesden to flow freely at St. Mary’s. The waters are available to be used in Church and to be taken away.”                                                      

Interestingly Foord appears to describe it as:

“in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water, upon a king of Scots, who being strangely diseased, was by some devine intelligence, advised to take the water of a Well in England, called Muswell, which after long scrutation, and inquisition, this Well was found and performed the cure’. Later this king was identified as Robert the Bruce (the Bruces held land nearby), and the illness was held to be leprosy.”

However is this another site?

The well is although described as now surmounted with a pump within the church, this appears to have gone and now a demijohn of water is found in the Lady Chapel. Apparently the source was rediscovered in 1998 but access cannot be granted.

Visiting the Wychwood Forest healing springs on Palm Sunday

DSC_1329
A throng of walkers pass the Wort Well

“Walkers enjoy day in ‘Hidden’ forest. Hundreds of ramblers and conservationists converged on the secret Wychwood Forest on Sunday to walk through its leady glades. It was the one day of the year – Palm Sunday – when Lord Rotherwick the owner of the 2150 acre medieval woodlands, allows public access.”

To which I might add just! This is a curious custom where part of the tradition remains, but aspects of it appear to have disappeared. The custom apparently was established to provide access of the local parishes adjacent – Leafield Five Ash, Charlbury and Finstock particularly – for the collection of wood and the visiting of the springs and wells of the estate. It is the latter of which is of considerable interest.

If you go down the woods…..

My aunt and uncle did not live far from this area and I have always been fascinated with this woods and their privacy. Apparently, I was not the only one. Large numbers of visitors could be found wandering the woods; their cars lined the narrow streets around the forest. It was not just for local people. In an excellent article by Roy Townsend on the Finstock Local History Website records the memories of a Mr Pratley of nearby Finstock. He notes the widespread nature of the visitors:

“It was possible to meet people from Cornwall one minute, then a family from Durham a few yards later.”

But why? The name the ‘Secret Forest’ was part of the appeal no doubt. It was a forest which could only be visited on Palm Sunday each year. Any other time of the year it was strictly out of bounds. Everyone loves a mysterious place and getting access to it was part of the allure.

Well wishing…

One of the major reasons for the access on Palm Sunday was for the local community to visit the springs and wells, which were thought to have a healing tradition on the day. A local historian, John Kibble, noted in 1928, recorded that prayers were said at the springs:

“Hast then a wound to heal; The wych doth grieve thee?Come then unto this welle, It will relieve thee:Nolie me tangeries, And other maladies”                                                                  

This was one of the main reasons also why the estate and its curious access tradition fascinated me. Wells and springs were often visited on this date, but this one appeared to have the longest surviving tradition and from some accounts some people still did it. The main aspect of this tradition undertaken was to make Spanish Water, using liquorice, brown sugar or sweets often black peppermints. Mr. Pratley again notes:

“This tradition took place all through the 20th century, and probably before, although the liquorice may have originally come from the root of the plant, rather than being shop bought.”

Three wells can still be found in the estate – the Cyder, the Wort and the Spa or Iron Well. The Wort Well or another lost well called Uzzle were the most popular apparently around them would grow wild liquorice. The name wort derives from healing suggesting its health giving properties. Of the Iron Well, Roy Townsend notes:

“Spanish Liquor is made up with some pieces of hard liquorice with two to three black gobstopper type sweets and white peppermints which were crushed, made up on Saturday night and shaken well on Sunday Morning. You take your bottle with the mixture in down to the well behind the kennels called the Iron Well. If it’s still there behind the fencing. We were forbidden to drink much of it on the way home.”

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The Iron Well
Cyder well
The Cyder Well

A poster in the Finstock Local History website, called Fabulous Flowers notes:

“I remember walking to the Iron Well on Palm Sunday with my great Aunty Vi and Molly and mixing the water with our Spanish liquor. Before the footpath was opened through the Wychwood forrest (sic) as it is know this was the only day you could walk down to the lakes and I remember lots of people doing this.”

The date of this visitation is unclear but this aspect tradition appears close to extinction or is extinct. An account noted that:

a man from Leafield, who used to take his bottle of mixture to the well up until a few years ago.”

ironwell route
The Cornbury Map showing route directly to Iron Well.

On entering the estate I still noticed that the route outlined still made a bee-line to the Iron Well.  The route had been diverted and I easily found my way in courtesy of a man who did the walk every Palm Sunday. I made my way at first to the Iron Well. I wasn’t convinced to drink the water..it certainly lived up to its name, having a reddy-orange scum on the edges – it didn’t look very appetizing. Entering the park I first made a slight detour to see the Cyder Well, which poured out a considerable flow of clear fresh water. However, I thought I would leave my Spanish water experience to the main well which was associated with the tradition – the Wort well. This was the less impressive of the springs but the easiest to determine the spring source.

Close up of the iron rich waters of the Iron Well

The name wort is suggestion of a long tradition of healing – wort is said to be a healing source, more frequently the end of a herb such as woundwort! Its other name Uzzle is suggestive that it derives from the Anglo-Saxon greeting Wæs þu hæl, meaning “be in good health” and thus again suggests it was a general cure-all.

Thus I lowered my bottle and filled it. Popping in my liquorice and giving it a shake I took a slip…it was refreshing but I could detect no real flavour. However as I progressed back along the path regular sips revealed a more flavoursome experience. By the end it was rather delicious and I regretted not filling more bottles or having more liquorice.

One wonders how old the Palm Sunday access is as Briggs refers to an Easter Monday tradition:

“on Easter Monday the Leafield people maintained, and still believe that they have the right to go into the Wychwood Forest and make Spanish Water which is made from one of the sacred springs in Wychwood Forest. The bottle is then shaken till the liquorice is dissolved. This is believed to be not only a tonic but a sovereign remedy for all kinds of disorders. It is grievance to the Leaford people that Wychwood is now closed to them.”

However, talking to local people they stated that they had had 100s of years of access on the date. In the church at Charlbury, I fortunately met Mrs Fowler. She informed me that visiting wells for Spanish Liquor was still very common up until in the 1980s. She and her husband remembered that a Royston (Dobber) Scroggs, a Cotswold Warden, would stand by the well and tell people the history.  This is no more. However, small groups do formally visit the springs such the Green Friends of the Hindu spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi who undertook a walk in 2014 and the Wychwood Forest church in 2017 who visited the Iron and Wort Wells.

My bottle of Spanish water by the Wort Well

Wandering around I watched a number of people on my journey around, of which only one came near to the springs…although they did fill a bottle and drink it. They did not have any liquorice though…Fortunately I did and it tasted rather nice.

sugar cupping
Liquorice dissolving in the water of the Wort Well

Cannot see the wood for the trees.

Ironically the popularity of the custom appeared to lead to its decline. An account from 1984 tellingly records:

“And the Council for the Protection of Rural England took it as an opportunity to promote its campaign to have the forest opened all the year around. Walkers and ramblers were asked, and were willing to sign a petition supporting the campaign. They were signing at the rate of 100 an hour.”

And so that signing lead to the opening up of a permanent footpath, from Patch Riding, Finstock, to Waterman’s Lodge, near Charlbury, through the estate in 1990..the one I used to access the permissive path. It may be only one, but like any incision, it allowed greater access and so the mystic began to fade…but not quite yet. It was clear that Palm Sunday I went that a considerable number of local and not so local people were still keen to see the vistas and green swards generally unavailable. The estate covers a considerable area and the footpath only crosses a very small section.

Walk on the wild side

The Palm Sunday Walk is a curious survival but one still under threat. Many years ago the clergy tried to bribe children by offering free crucifixes to keep them in church. Even today a poster to the Finstock History page notes:

“The last time I tried to visit it on a Palm Sunday, the gate which would have given access to the iron well was locked. I suspect it is only ignorance that keeps us out: if the local history society asked, they’d probably let a group in next year.”

But local people are determined to keep the Palm Sunday Walk open. Mr Pratley writes:

“I walk this permanent footpath regularly but also try to do the Palm Sunday walk as often as possible, as that’s still the only day the Five Ash Bottom route is open to the public.”

He remarks he saw few people despite doing a complete circuit! Indeed, when I arrived I found the traditional route sadly blocked and plenty of walkers appearing and then turning around scratching heads and moaning. However, at least access remains whether people take the waters or not…plenty enough people were happy to ensure that the custom of walking the path remained.

However it would be nice to see more Spanish Water drinking. The is especially significant when if you visit many wells you can find the tradition of tying objects, called clooties to the trees, a tradition foreign to many places it is now found.  It would be better to see the revival of more native traditions such as Spanish Water drinking – at this site I can safely vouch for its safety of drinking its water. So if you are in the area please keep the Spanish water alive!

The Iron Well

In search of rag wells: Irish rag wells a photo archive

Wishing trees at St Cooey's Well by Eric Jones

Wishing trees at St Cooey’s Well ©Copyright Eric Jones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Holy Well, Cranfield Co Antrim by Robert Ashby
The Holy Well, Cranfield Co Antrim

The Holy Well at Cranfield near the old church on the shore of Lough Neagh. Pilgrimages were made to the well between May Eve and 29th June. The tradition of hanging healing rags and tokens still continues. Amber pebbles found in the well are said to have great healing powers. An annual Mass is carried out to bless the boats of the local fishermen.
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Robert Ashby and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Eye Well by Kenneth Allen
The Eye Well

At the base of the promontory below the ruined church is a spring, known locally as the “Eye Well”, which is believed to have curative powers for eye ailments. It must be extensively used as I could see hundreds of clothes hung on branches of the trees. They would have been dipped into the healing waters. I gather that a prayer is said as the rag is left there. A descriptive stone is nearby H3462 : Path leading to the eye well, Dromore There used to be a holy well at Errigal, Ballygawley where people went to with similar complaints H5857 : Holy well, Gort And recently I noticed this holy tree at Navan Fort H8445 : Holy tree, Navan Fort
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Kenneth Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

St Brigid's Well: Loch Dearg by louise price
St Brigid’s Well: Loch Dearg

An ancient site on the west bank of Loch Dearg, although the stone work here & cross wrapped in ‘votive’ rags is modern, this is the original site of a medieval wooden bridge to Saint’s Island, said to be the original island of pilgrimage as opposed to the current Station Island.
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright louise price and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Abbey Well by louise price
The Abbey Well

Tobar na Bachaille: the Well of the Staff or Crozier. This ancient well is associated with St. Patrick and St Colmcille, who helped his cousin St Barron found Killbarron church. On August 15th people come here on pilgrimage to pray and some tie strips of cloth to a tree as votive offerings.
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright louise price and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Tobernalt in Co. Sligo by Enda O Flaherty
Tobernalt in Co. Sligo

Votive offerings hang at the holy well of Tobernalt in Co. Sligo
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Enda O Flaherty and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

"Do not leave rags" notices, St Malachy's Well by Kenneth Allen
“Do not leave rags” notices, St Malachy’s Well

There is a similar situation at Dromore, in County Tyrone, on a smaller scale, where the Eye Well is located outside the town, in which cloths are left beside the well, which is reputed to have healing properties H3462 : Eye well, Dromore Pictured here H7932 : Interior of St Malachy’s Well
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Kenneth Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

 

In search of rag wells: St Teilo’s Well, Llandeilo – a photo archive

This may well be the only ‘traditional’ surviving rag well in Wales the tradition of using only cotton strips predominate.
Red and white appear to be the main rags attached to trees around the pools. The  only  non  traditional  rag

In search of rag wells: The Lincolnshire rag well cluster part 2

Last month I introduced the rag wells associated with Lincolnshire we now move southwards to explore the other sites.

The Seven Springs

At the significantly named Hemswell are the seven springs apparently rise from the spring wells and one of these is dedicated to St Helen’s Well (SK 932 911). The site has an eerie but not unquiet atmosphere. The proximity of a local stone called the Devil’s pulpit may help this of course. It is a large approximately six foot high piece of sandstone under which a small spring arises. This Ian Thompson (1999) Lincolnshire Wells and Springs notes local opinion thought was St. Helen’s, he said it tasted sweeten than the other waters (a fact that I cannot testify as the spring has appeared to have almost dried up the year I went). Peter Binnall (1845) in his theories on eye wells notes that the spring wells were regarded as possessing curative powers and rags were hung on the surrounding bushes. The dedication of St Helen is an interesting one of course and just within the main area. Jeremy Harte’s 2008 English Holy Wells suggests that the name is spurious and that Ethel Rudkin (1936) Lincolnshire Folklore does not refer to it as such, however in support of the view I had no problem locally detecting the well using this name in the village (incidentally Harte makes an error referring to the springs as Aisthorpe Springs, these are clearly another site). There was supposed to be a chapel or church associated with the site, of which there is no trace or record. There was no evidence of any rags on any of the trees and the only thing hanging was a rope for a tyre swing!

Not far away and still surviving are the Aisthorpe springs (SK 956 899) a curative spring and a rag well, despite what Thompson (1999) notes is not now incorporated into a sewage farm, although this is nearby. The spring arises with some force near by the footpath which passes towards the sewage farm and has a separate flow from that of the plant. The spring flows from a pipe beneath some thorn bushes, sadly without any sign of rags.

To the east is Holton cum Beckering were to the east of Holton Hall was a Rag Well according to Lincolnshire Notes and Queries which was said to have had some medicinal qualities, however recent correspondence with local vicar has shown that there is now no local knowledge of this well. The only evidence was a local name for a field to the south of the town known as Well Walk. There is a spring fed pool in churchyard but no traditions are given concerning this. It is possible perhaps that this is the same site as the Wishing Well at Nettleton.

Here at Nettleton, the Wishing well which is records as being half mile from church, east of the grange on land belonging to Holton Park hence the possible confusion with above. Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock (1908) Lincolnshire County Folklore note that:

“It was famous for its curative virtues, and thither many of the afflicted, until very recently, if not now, were wont to make a pilgrimage. A thorn tree grew over the well, which used to be covered with votive offerings, chiefly bits of rag, the understood condition to any benefit being that whoever partook of the water should ‘leave something.’ The thorn tree, however, is now cut down.”

Again no local people could determine the existence of this site and nothing is marked on maps.

Kingerby Spa (TF 045 914) whose name first appears in 1824 as the site of a Chalybeate spring might seem an unusual place for a rag well but it is an old site. In Lincolnshire notes and queries state that large numbers of coins dating back to Elizabeth I, were dredged from the pool. Records tell that in 1900, pins and coins were found nearby, and the thorn rags were full of rags. Mr Wilkinson states that it became popular in Victorian times as a place to go for the healing waters and he had seen a photo of the spring with strips of cloth fastened to the bushes surrounding the spring but could not locate it.  He believed it fell out of popularity after the turn of the century, and suggested that the landowner was against people tramping over his land to reach it. However, as late as the 1990s, that the then owner was thinking of selling the waters. Mr. Wilkinson also noted that last time he saw the spa it resembled a pipe discharging into a dyke. This is at variance to Pastscape, which notes that the site consists of a small oval shaped isolated pool which has three courses of narrow brickwork forming a semi-circular rim with another brick course and a coping stone set into the side of the hollow suggesting that was a well house.  Despite appearing to exist as a small pool on both the current O/S and Google maps; recent field work failed to reveal it. The site would appear to have either dried up or purposely filled in. Field train channels were nearby. This was despite being described on the parish map outside the church, although interestingly this revealed itself to be in another location to that noted on the map so maybe I was pixy led.

The last traditional site is the chalybeate Blind Well (TF 085 208) on the edge to Bourne Wood is the furthest south rag well. However, there are no signs of rags now. Its water was used to cure eye complaints and sold in Bourne Market. It is now rather neglected being rather weed filled and untidy surrounded by a rather ugly wooden frame.

Thus completes the traditional rag wells but as I have eluded to before what is interesting is the site called  Lud’s Well (TF 176 937) at Stainton Le Vale. The evocative site is a spring which arises in a small cave like structure and fills a small pool. When I saw it in the summer it was a bit dry but apparently it forms a small waterfall according to local sources. I learnt of the site from Thompson’s 1999 work and when visited did not see any sign of ribbons. Now this is the county’s only rag well. This can be seen from this screenshot from a recent video visiting the site. Why?

Rags near Lud’s Well image from Steve Fuller’s Vimeo video

The origin of the name may suggest why. Although it is believed to come from O.E Hlud meaning ‘loud’ others prefer to believe it is derived from Celtic deity Lud, this however is unlikely. Thus it seems very likely that the site has been adopted by the local pagan community who have adopted the attaching of ribbons as a pagan gesture.

So why. Such a cluster as far east as it is as possible to go puts in question the idea that the custom is strongly Celtic in origin perhaps. So why in Lincolnshire. A theory I discuss in my working thesis on the work is that the custom was brought by gypsy communities who had a stronghold in the county. However, why these particular springs is unclear perhaps like Winterton, Hemswell, Aisthorpe, Healing they were close to main roads  – we cannot state this in the case of the lost sites of course.

What is interesting is how quickly the custom died out in the county and one wonders whether this is correlated by the reduction in gypsy numbers as well.

In search of rag wells: St Helen’s well, Thorp Arch, Walton, Yorkshire

 

A fragment of cream coloured cloth is a curious exhibit piece at Oxford Universities’ Pitt Rivers museum. It states:

“Votive rags from St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch near Boston Spa, West Yorkshire 1884.140.331 is an example of the votive rags that were tied to a tree near a well.”

Interestingly it also notes:

“Oddly this item was not accessioned into the Pitt Rivers Museum collections until the 1990s though it had lain in the museum for over a hundred years by then.”

This rag is perhaps unique being the only museum example of a rag taken from a rag well (considering the folklore associated with such sites I would be interested what happened to the collector). It is fitting to have this record of one of the countries most famed rag wells. For outside the famed Clootie Well and Madron Well, St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch is perhaps the most famed rag well; one which today only a memory survives perhaps –and this acquisition is interestingly the earliest reference to the site. The earliest published reference is in A Thousand miles in Wharfedale by Edmund 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.”

A gewgaw would appear to refer to rags as the dictionary definition being a showy thing, especially one that is useless or worthless.  A term which has largely fallen out of usage since the Victorian times.

Our next reference is Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells. He explicitly now refers to rags, as he notes that:

It was usual for those who consulted the oracle at this well to make an offering there of a scrap of cloth. This was fastened to an adjoining thorn, which, being literally covered with pieces of, rag, presented a peculiar appearance.”

Harry Speight (1902) Lower Wharfedale visited St. Helen’s Well he notes in reference to a cross:

This interesting relic of the ancient faith was discovered here, hidden among brushwood near the celebrated spring which bears St. Helen’s name. Whitaker thinks that the distinguished lady had crossed the ford of Wharfe, and that in all probability she had drank at this well, which for centuries afterwards became a very popular resort of religious votaries, particularly from the vicinity of York. Subsequently a chapel was erected on the spot, which was standing in Leland’s time, but the Reformation did away with most of these wayside oratories, and not a stone now remains.

He description of the rag custom seems to suggest it was by his time in abeyance:

Such, however, was the fascination of this time-honoured spot, that down even to our own time pilgrimages continued to be made to the holy fountain, and bits of metal or pins were thrown into the water, or ribbons were attached to the adjoining bushes (as many as forty or fifty have been seen within living memory), in propitiation of the good cause of St. Helen and Christianity. The water is beautifully soft and clear, and in former times was much resorted to as a specific for sore or weak eyes.”

By the time that C.N. Bromehead wrote an article entitled ‘Rag Wells,’ in Antiquity IX, March 1935 he visited the well he recorded that:

“There is now no well or visible spring, but from the position at the lower margin of a gravel terrace it is obvious that water would be obtained by digging a few feet; a small stream flows just east of the site.”

Yet despite its lost he noted that:

 “It is curious that the hanging of rags should survive when the actual well has vanished, but the writer has visited the spot many times in the last seven years and there are always plenty of obviously recent additions.  The custom is to stand facing the well (i.e., due west), preferably after sunset, wish, and then attach something torn from one’s clothing either to the big tree — wych elm — or to any of the bushes.”

Like a precursor of the lovelocks folk craze now current everywhere the author then continues to observe:

“Probably the custom is largely maintained by vagrants who frequently camp in the wood, but it also has its attraction for courting couples from the neighbouring villages!”

Certainly the final nail in the coffin was in 1940 when a munitions factory called ROF Thorp Arch was opened following compulsory purchase of the land. This made St Helen’s Lane and the Rag Well out of bounds until 1958 when the site was closed. According to Pastscape historical record that in 1958 it recorded:

“St. Helen’s Well (a Votive or Rag Well) still used as such. The Well, now dry and overgrown, has no associated masonry, and appears to have been a simple spring.”

This appears to be to the contra of the fact the munitions factory had emasculated the custom. Yet it was doubtless on the way out for by 1963, this entry had been updated to read:

“There are no visible remains of the chapel, but the contour of the ground in the vicinity of the well, suggests a natural hillock at SE 45134583 as the probable site. 

However even in the 2000s ribbons could still be seen in the vicinity but whether these were placed by locals seeking a cure or local pagans keen to continue the tradition is unclear but it is interestingly that one of the most famous English rag wells lives on. I only wish that those who had attached the current rags were aware of the that original in Oxford and ensured that their examples were cotton based!

 

 

 

 

In search of rag wells: The Clootie or St. Boniface’s Well, Munlochy, Scotland – a photo archive

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This year we are focusing on the often controversial subject of rag or clootie wells. The topic has already been explored on this blog a while back but with new research it is worth exploring again. So this year either view detailed history/folklore discussion or photo archive we shall be exploring the topic again. To start rather than a detailed History/folklore blog post it would be good to look at the range of clooties or rags left at the country’s most famous example with my ideas of why and I hope it might encourage discussion.

Over Beltane 2017 I had the privilege to spend much of the day at this famed holy well. My aim was two fold:

a – to photo as many as possible of the clooties and other offerings at the well as a record

b – to hopefully encounter visitors attaching clooties

Below is a photo archive cataloguing some of the diverse form of offerings at the well. For the background to this site please see the earlier post. I shall give my recollections of b in a later post with another on the site’s history

I have tried to categorise each item and give some rationale…it’s a controversial subject and now the site has been cleared recently do doubtless many of these have gone, which is not necessarily a bad thing in many cases!

Underwear – were these spare or did they completely undress? Are they associated with problems with these parts of the body? There is the famous bra fence in Australia associated with cures of cancer is this the same or are they ex votos as thanks?

Shoes – Similarly for foot problems or thanks for travelling safely…some new shoes as well

Teddies and dolls – personal items of a sick child perhaps?

Flags! – Hope for Nationalism and a record for overseas visitors

Football scarfs – wishing the team good luck!

Tabards – asking for solving work problems or to give protection for workers!

Personal messages – hope, thanks and memories of friendship renewed

Bags – good luck for school

Plaster casts – speak for themselves

Odd eggs! – Cowabunga! Fertility perhaps or just an attempt at egg rolling!?

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This one’s been here for a while!

And there are many many more…perhaps enough for another blog post at the end!

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: The rag wells of Wales

As a prelude to next year’s theme on votive offerings at holy and healing wells with a special focus on rag wells, for this abecedary entry W I have picked Wales and want to focus on rag wells in the country as an early prelude to my theme next year which is on rag or more often called cloottie wells.

Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and nature

The earliest confirmed reference is an English one of 1600 and evidence from Wales of their existence comes much later as nearly 300 years after the first accounts. What are we to make of this?

An account by Professor Rhys in Folklore for September, 1892 is the easiest reference and he is given the following information, said to be ‘lately sent to him by a friend, about a Glamorganshire holy well situated between Coychurch and Bridgeendd’ he notes.:—

“people suffering from any malady to dip a rag in the water, and bathe the affected part. The rag is then placed on a tree close to the well. When I passed it, about three years ago, there were hundreds of these shreds covering the tree, and some had evidently been placed there very recently.”

He was further informed that :

 “People suffering from rheumatism. They bathe the part affected with water, and afterwards tie a piece of rag to the tree which overhangs the well. The rag is not put in the water at all, but is only put on the tree for luck. It is a stunted but very old tree, and is simply covered with rags.”

An interesting variant of the custom is recorded at Ffynnon Eilian (St. Elian’s Well), near Abergele in Denbighshire. Here Professor Rhys was informed by Mrs. Evans, the late wife of Canon Silvan Evans, who states that:

“some bushes near the well had once been covered with bits of rag left by those who frequented it. The rags used to be tied to the bushes by means of wool-not woollen yarn, but wool in its natural state. Corks with pins stuck in them were floating in the well when Mrs. Evans visited it, though the rags had apparently disappeared from the bushes.”

This may have been to do with the unfavourable nature of the well which was renowned as a cursing well. Recently restored it rags have yet to re-appear there!

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Finally he records Ffynnon Cefn Lleithfan, or Well of the Lleithfan Ridge, on the eastern slope of Mynydd y Rhiw, in the parish of Bryncroes, in the west of Caernarvonshire, here:

“The wart is to be bathed at the well with a rag or clout, which has grease on it. The clout must then be carefully concealed beneath the stone at the mouth of the well.”

Which is yet again another variant possibly to do with the paucity of trees in the area

In an article in the Cardiff Naturalists Society (1935) by Aileen Fox, entitled “A Rag Well near Llancarfan” the spring called the Inflammation Spring  she states that:

“When I first visited the spring in August, 1935, 3 old rags – pieces of dish cloth and calico – and a piece of brown wool were tied on overhanging branches by the source.”

And records that:

“The treatment described by Mrs Williams consisted in using the water for drinking to the exclusion of all other fluids, in applying mud from the source as a plaster on the affected parts, and in tying a rag, preferably from the underclothing, by the well.”

Distribution of the rag wells in the county is spread out with a small cluster in the south. Research and survey work indicates that there are eight traditional sites of which only three have a continued tradition, although it is difficult to describe or define the presence of rags there as continued or revived tradition without further research. Add to this only three sites which have no tradition but have no become rag wells. This latter category itself is a puzzle to define.

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A recent visit to the atmospheric St. Pedr’s Well at Caswell Bay on the Gower did reveal rags and objects hanging from trees. However, the more traditional appearing was St. Teilo’s Well, Llandilo in Pembrokeshire where trees beside the pool filled by the spring were adorned with white and red fabrics of cloth and as such perhaps appears closer to the tradition than other sites such as St Anne’s Well, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, where a tree is adorned with a multitude of objects when it is not actively cleared up by local people. Why rags and objects should appear at St Tegla’s Well, Llandega, Denbighshire, or the Holy Well, Pileth, Powys or Patrishow’s holy well, Llanlawer is unclear. As sites which have received publicity in the earth mysteries and pagan press these rank pretty high. However, it is interesting to note that they are all close to the English border too. The origins of the custom in Wales similarly is difficult to determine. The widespread nature of the custom and it variant usage suggests possibly a wider distribution and the sites remaining are bar the remnants or that it arose individually in a number of places.

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Uganda Sempaya hot springs

Spurting out sometimes 2 metres into the air, in the Semuliki National Park can be found the remarkable Sempaya Hot Springs. Boiling at up to 103 degrees Celsius; the indigenous Bamaga clan have a legend to explain it.

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The male and female springs

The Bamaga clan, state that a hot spring arose after the tribe’s womenfolk saw a hairy man dressed in bark holding a spear with his dog moving in a zig zag fashion, whist collecting wood. Quickly returning to the men, the men then decided invite him to their village and find him a wife called Nyansimbi. However, the man who became known as Biteete disappeared once hunting and after searching they came to the hot spring where they found him and found no traces of both the man nor dog at the site, only their spear. They cried out Bilente meaning ‘Oh he has gone’ and thus the spring was so named. On returning to the village they told his wife and who also ran into the forest and was never seen again. When they looked for her they found at another hot spring her clothes. As a result they named the springs Male and Female, giving them the name Bilente and Nyansimbi respectively.

Healing springs

They believe the springs to be where their ancestors reside, Consequently, over the generations, the Bamaga tribe would perform rituals over the springs yearly, throwing in coins and making animal sacrifices.  At Nyansimbi pregnant women would visit and pray for a safe pregnancy and delivery whilst other women visit to improve their fertility. Whilst others visit the waters believing the water, which are rich in salts, can cure skin problems. These extremely hot waters still continue to spurt out of the water producing a remarkable spectacle for all he see it.

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Some Swedish sacred källa

Sweden boasts a number of sacred springs or källa. Many of these are what are called in English sacrifice springs where objects of wealth of deposited. One of the commonest dedications is to St Olof and so we shall explore two of these first.

Who was Sankt Olof ?

Born in 995 in Norway, Olav, Olov or Olof II Haraldsson as the King of Norway, Christianised the country and many miracles were associated with him after his death in 1015. That he was elevated to saints was due to the miracles that were said to have happened after his death. The saint fame spread throughout the Nordic countries and St. Olof’s day, the July 29 is celebrated widely.  In the folklore, Olav appears as a patron saint against the pagan evil powers.

St Olof’s well Vasterlanda

The spring may have been a pre-Christian site of sacrifice with the saint’s name being applied to Christianise it in the 1100s. Its water was considered good for eyes being recorded as such in 1693 to cure eye diseases.

The site was a popular pilgrimage site with people coming on the saint’s day, although the church was uncomfortable with the mix of sacredness and drinking. People came to leave money at the spring and poorer people left meat meaning that the spring was often covered with a layer of fat

Famous scientist Carl Linnaeus writes in his Skåne journey:

“The most beautiful party is St. Olof’s day, when the people here storm to a great extent from distant places to interrogate the sermon and to sacrifice.”

Sankt Olofs källa - KMB - 16001000032277.jpg

By John-Eric Gustafsson / Riksantikvarieämbetet, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60833835

St Olof’s Spring, Hallaröd

The information at the site neatly describes it. Its states:

“In the Middle Ages, about 1050-1500 AD, the source cult received a boost and many and special rites were created through the direct involvement of the Catholic Church. After the Reformation, in 1536, the saint’s cult was considered superstitious and primitive. The church was now trying to eradicate it in various ways, but the interest in the sources lived partly, sometimes until the end of the 19th century. It mainly concerned the custom of sacrificing money and drinking and washing in the health-care source water. At the end of the 17th century, the art of healing also began to be interested in health sources and surpluses. The biggest holiday day was of course the day of the holidays on July 29.One offered money or perhaps food and asked for health, prosperity and about the daily bread. Olof also kept beasts, snakes and trolls away from the creature and he protected and blessed the annual growth. The journey to Hallaröd’s sacrificial source was usually concluded with a visit to the market which was held near the church. By the middle of the 18th century, the market was moved to Hörby.”

 The Hammarby Kalla

Considered to have considerable healing powers was this source just northwest of the church at Lake Fysingen in Uppland . To secure a cure one would drink seven sips on a triple evening , which is seven days after the Pentecost .Hence the spring was called a triple well. The site was restored in 2011 and re-blessed on Sunday 4th September. People can be baptised and married at the well in the summer.

Fagertofta spring

At the Fagertofta burial ground there is a site where coins were left at Midsummer Spring . It is two meters in diameter and 3 decimeters deep and surrounded by a wooden fence. According to the saying, you drank or washed here during the midsummer night to stay healthy. This is one of the source of sacrifice or Osterkalla were objects of value such as coins would be added. These were often associated with midsummer and youths.

Karrock

Mjölnarens källa

This sacrifice spring was one of the most famed. As the source flowed north it was thought to make the water more magical and healthy and on certain times it had extra healing powers. In “Witchcraft, disbelief and house cures in Danderyd and Lidingö at the year 1783” noted: 

A source flowing to the north has wholehearted waters, than the one that flows to other directions […] Near Landsnora Qvarn is such a source, running out of the halle mountain, from there water is collected for the cure of numerous diseases, especially for sick eyes.

Av Holger.Ellgaard – Eget arbete, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34724998