Category Archives: Survival tradition
The Holy Well in the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham – Fr Martin Warner. Source New Series No 4 Spring 1995:
We continue our series of articles on living cults at particular British holy wells with the following account of the Well of Our Lady of Walsingham, in Norfolk. It is written by Fr Martin Warner, the Administrator of the Anglican shrine of Walsingham. Those unfamiliar with the history of the Walsingham shrine are recommended to read J. C. Dickinson, The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Cambridge 1956. The original medieval well, in the grounds of the ruined priory, and the holy well now enclosed within the modern pilgrimage church, are both described by Janet and Colin Bord, Sacred Wates Paladin (London) 1986 pp 199-201. The Bords note that ‘this newly restored holy well can safely claim to be the most active holy well in England. Probably Britain.’
In the Spring/Summer 1929 edition of Our Lady’s Mirror, a quarterly paper for the newly formed Society of Our Lady of Walsingham, an article by G.S. Dunbar on holy wells was published, listing a number of sanctuaries linked with Holy Wells and Springs. Making reference to the already famous use of water at Lourdes and the miracles that had been recorded there, Dunbar continued, ‘such miracles were worked in the past at Glastonbury and Walsingham, to mention two places amongst very many, and at Walsingham, to mention two still survive, and pilgrimages are being resumed, while sufferers resorting there after Confession and Holy Communion, use the water, invoking our Lady of Walsingham, and receive healing.’
A short time later, during the excavations for building the new shrine in 1931, a well was discovered and incorporated into the pilgrimage church. A photograph published in the Mirror in 1934 shows the proximity of the well to the Holy House which can be seen rising in new brickwork behind it. The discovery was part of the evidence which encouraged Fr Patten, the restorer of the Shrine, to believe that the site on which he was building had been the location of the original Holy House. Other foundations discovered between 1931 and 1937 convinced him that this was likely to be so.
The story of the origins of the shrine at Walsingham tells us that when the Lady of the Manor, Richeldis, had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she was taken in the spirit to Nazareth, shown the house in which the Holy Family had lived and told to build a replica of that house in her own land. The sign for where thus ‘casa sancta’ should be built was the eruption of a spring of water, and so the well has always been a part of the Walsingham cult, witnessed to by the well (more modern and more akin to a pond) in the ground of the ruined Priory, spoken of by Dunbar in his article and used by pilgrims prior to the restoration of the Shrine church in 1931.
Today the well in the shrine is an important part of our identity. It stands as a sign of the continuity of the new and old, witnessing the use of water to indicate hallowed ground and the presence of God in a particular way. More universally, the well points also to the centrality of baptism, the Sacrament by which Christians participate in the life and death of Jesús, within his body, the church. In this way the power of the incarnation is experienced as the source of all healing and all miracles.
To describe fully the significance of the well in the life of the Shrine today, it may be useful to look first at what happens when pilgrims come to be sprinkled, and then at three different types of pilgrim for whom this service can be of particular importance.
First of all, the service of Sprinkling. This is an informal service which takes place at 2.30 pm, each afternoon from Easter to the end of October and every weekend throughout the year. People gather in the main body of the Church for an introductory talk. After an opportunity to reflect on their sum of human suffering and our universal need for healing, there is a simple recognition of sin, brokenness and pain, and prayer for reconciliation. Going then to the well, the water is received in three ways. First, a sip to drink then used for making the sign of the cross on the forehead, and finally poured out into cupped hands to splash some part of the body in need of healing, or simply as a gesture of refreshment or cleansing. Those who have been sprinkled then make their way into the Holy House for final prayers and a blessing.
For Christians this can be a powerful and moving rite. A source of healing and a symbol in action of the movement from death to life. But it also speaks eloquently of another movement, that of all Christians towards unity and healing of past divisions. For those who experience sprinkling at the well, the Anglican identity of the Shrine is not of paramount significance. Walsingham is holy ground, to which Christians of all traditions (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Reformed) have various points of access, each which focus on baptism, helping pilgrims of different traditions to recognise what we share in allegiance to Jesus Christ, the child of Mary. The rite gives a structure for Christians to pray and worship together in an activity which unlike the eucharist, does not raise issues of denominational boundary.
Many of those who visit Walsingham and come to the well are from other religious traditions. A number of Asian families are often to be seen at the rite of sprinkling, some of them Christian, but some of them not. For these pilgrims water has a special religious significance with which they easily seem able to identify.
As an expression of the sacred, the River Ganges holds a powerful place in the religious imagination and landscape of India. Washing is a natural religious ceremony for many, and in the Islamic tradition Mary has a significant place of respect. Thus the well open up a dialogue with people of other faiths, recognising that in the ritual association with it there is an expression of some sacred awareness germane to human identity.
During the Summer months many holiday makers stumble across the Shrine and its well and attend, almost by accident, the rite of sprinkling. What their impressions are and how they interpret the symbolism is not always clear. But again, some relationships is often awakened with those whose faith is inarticulate, but whose search is real. This can sometimes be expressed by tears which indicate a hurt in need of healing. Sometimes it can be a sign of the strengthening of family bonds, hint at a sense of life as a precious gift and graciousness of its creator. For those who feel such stirrings, to crowd with others, into the dimly -lit Holy House after being sprinkled , witnessing the glow and candlelight, us to come as near as one night to siftinging holiness and jostling with angels. The waters of this well go deep indeed.
Most of the Belgian wells (about 300) spring in the countryside; and mainly in the French-speaking region. However towns are not unprovided by them.
So, in order to get a general idea let us be allowed to focus only on some of the them i.e on some of those to which healing power is attributed by tradition. They very often gave birth to cults or rites and generated enthusiastic pilgrimages surviving for centuries, consequently illustrating the depth of popular credulity in the past as at the present time.
If these fontaines merveilleuses are, in most cases, hidden away at the end of paths twisting through fields and woods, they are of easy reach in villages and towns. Occasionally, they may be fed by a hand pump. Sometimes, a chapel enhances the importance of the spot. These are determined by the zone of emergence of the miraculous source, according to the legend or life of the saint to whom it is closely related. Some names occur in the hagiography, whereas other names, taking into account dialectal pronunciations, became quite modified. Shall we dare say that some are simply apocryphal?
As a rule in Belgian villages, wells are situated alongside roads but can easily escape notice. Let us cite a few examples.
A Scots (Irish) Monk, named Monon (ob. circa 636) built a hut in solitude and sielence near the remote fons Nasiana or Nasonoa (now called Nassogne). Later on, Pepin the Short. Charlemagne’s father, who is aid to have caused a source to gush force there, in thankfulness for the kindness of God through Monon’s intercession came back to the lonely placed to richly endow the pious monk’s sanctuary. Nowadays, only an engraved slab modesty commemorates this fruit of a rather queer superstition of two medieval legends. Hence the pretty name of ‘Source de la Pepinette’
Another example is Saint Fredegan’s Well, hidden under the foundation of a house at Mousteir-sur-Sambre. It was supposed to cure children of tuberculosis or to improve their locomotion. They had to drink water from the spring. Some could be washed, dipped or even dressed with wet clothes. This out-of-the way tradition begun ‘a longe tyme ago’.
The most talked-of holy well in Belgium is undoubtedly found in the village of Banneux, near Verviers ie not far from the German border. This is an international centre of pilgrimage, devoted to the virgin after she appeared there in 1933. Thousands of hopeful pilgrims and tired day-trippers come mainly on summer sunny days to visit the chapel and gaze for a while at the neighbouring source topped by Mary’s statue. The water is renowned as miraculous.
At Bouval, horses are blessed, watered and well-groomed every August 24 at St Bartholomew’s Well. At this occasion, a procession takes place in the open country.
Saint Roch is believed to have cured himself of the plague after washing at the source at the village of Harnoncourt, so the legend tells. Ever since, the neighbourhood as always been preserved from epidemics. Once raised to the ground, the saint’s statue which formerly adorned the old washing-place, had been replaced. It has been set above the renovated fountain (1976). The odd thing about the well is that various personifications of the water (such as sprite monsters, undines, water people and cintry-people) are also present in a decorative manner. Pilgrims yearly come on August 15 to drink the water and to pray.
A cube shaped fountain, bearing the name of Saint Lawrence, whose cult is widespread, has been built below the church of Patagne-la-Grande. Its fresh water, people say, is a sovereign for burns, the saint having perished on a gridiron. There as at some other places, wells associate the Christian cult with the realities of peasant life.
Every year, also on August 15, a curious tradition is maintained at Saint Lawrence a village in the Namur district, with a procession and pageant in the saint’s honour. This gives the villages the opportunity for villagers dressed as soldiers to soak their points of their swords of the butts of their rifles into Saint Lawrence’s well water.
In the same province, it is said that a certain Lupicin, having three times driven his stick into the ground at Lustin, sprouted out three sources which fed Saint Lupicin’s Well. On Whit-Monday, pilgrims invoke him for headaches.
Since the eighteenth century, lots of pilgrims – hoping for the best – go to Marcourt (Province of Luxembourg) where Saint Theobald’s well, hidden in a wood, is supposed to be miraculous. After drinking the water, washing and in some cases filling bottles, devout folks stick crosses (made from two small branches of wood) into the ground as votive offerings. Should young girls walk three times in silence round the chapel, they will become engaged within the year.
At Vielsam in the same province, Saint Gengoux, killed by his wife’s sweetheart in the year 760 is paradoxically evoked for a couple’s union. This source is conceived by naïve lovers as the right spot for pilgrimage, not only against rheumatism and eye disorders, but also to plight one’s troth. That sounds silly, doesnt it? A useful wariness should be observed, for everyone knows how dodgy this may sometimes be!
Some of the many lavoirs (public washing places) situated in the southern and eastern parts of Belgium have been connected, too. in the course of time, to a particular cult. For instance, at Laneffe, horses are yearly invited to drink the water which is thought go have a beneficial effect on animals. . Whereas, at Villers-devant-Orval, those who suffer sorrows or finger infections evoke Saint Gengoux’s aid at his washing-place.
Other holy wells can also be seen in more or less extraordinary spots, even near the sad walls of a cemetery (Villers-la-Bonne-Eaux). Several, seated along side houses in picturesque surroundings, often date from Celtic times and are concealed far from indiscrete at Couture-Saint-Germain, on a hidden hillside in the open country and next to a chapel. Slow-growing children are taken there by distressed parents asking for relief with a glimmering of hope in their eyes. The pilgrimage is traditionally linked with various dipping of chemisettes and sick lambs. Three times linens must be dropped into the water, and the chapel passed round many times; and it is piointless to controvert established opinion.
Woods too, especially in the southern part of the Walloon region, including several holy wells. Charming legends are common, but many are no better known then the old story of King Alfred and the cakes is by today’s British computerised undergraduates. Some are not very easy to discover whilst others are found on the outskirts of villages or close by.
The goal of an annual pilgrimage since 1855 (for skin diseases), the small Saint Meen’s Fountain, near Couvin can be encountered at the verge of the wood. It is the only Belgian sanctuary consecrated to this Irish preacher much noted in Brittany (6th cent.)
We cannot forget, of course, to mention the other old fountain of Bellefontaine (Ardennes) designed for the purpose of commemorating Saint Furcy, another Irish priest (7th cent). They say he stayed there after having made a well spring out from his rod. In the past pious pilgrimage were very popular there, but in our hectic days, the dried up source is forlorn and does not attract anybody.
Others too, suffering loneliness and loss of interest, ceased to be hospitable and are no more alas! what used to be sic transit gloria mundo as we all know.
First published in Source Holy Wells Journal New Series No 3 Spring 1995
It is a small community. Blink and you’d miss it on the way to Penistone. It does appear to be able to agree on its name Midhope cum Langsett or Midhopestones? There’s an even smaller church, really a chapel and even smaller congregation. But what it lacks in size it certainly makes up with atmosphere and devotion – no other church in the region blesses its wells without a dressing. Furthermore it boasts two of the county’s more substantial healing springs.
Springing from somewhere?
The history of the custom is an obscure one. There is record of this being a revival. When it was revived local people who recall it being done in their lifetime and local belief is that the blessing of the well was done in the 1800s. Perhaps like the Bisley well blessings it was the brainchild of a local High Church clergyman who wanted to return a bit of colour back into these mundane mining landscapes. Sadly despite the conviction of this being an old tradition nothing is written down to support the view. Sadly, the only history of the area Joseph Kenworthy’s (1935) The Lure of Midhope-cum-Langsett fails to mention it although it does discuss St. James Well. Mind you it is worth noting he does not refer to the Potters well so it might not have been that comprehensive. Indeed he does state that the customs of the village have not been recorded. Was he hinting something?
“At Nether Midhope in the Precincts of the Manorial Homestead of Midhope-in-Waldershelf, may have been held in superstitious reverence long before Anglo-Saxon, Dane or Norman came on the scene” (Kenworthy)”.
It is worth noting that Joseph Kenworthy was apparently a local historian in this area however he does not appear to have written or discovered a great deal about the well. The genuine belief of its age suggests to me that this was a revived custom otherwise well dressing would have been done instead or as well when it returned. As it was across this part of South Yorkshire at Dore, Norton – itself in 1972 and close by in Penistone. Tony Foxworthy Folklore of Yorkshire (2008) states that the two well are dressed in June. However, I cannot find any corroboration of this in the usual sources such as Nayor and Porter’s Well dressing book! This suggests an older origin to me.
Rob Wilson (1990) in his Holy Wells and spas of South Yorkshire notes that the custom was revived on the 1st October 1972 but appears now to be fixed firmly on the third Sunday of September. Why this date was chosen is unclear as it is not a patronal day or a date associated with well customs. He also notes that both wells are “decorated rather than dressed’ however this aspect of the custom does appear to have fallen into abeyance. The chapel now appears to be dressed in bouquets and wreaths and makes an evocative site.
Holy and healing springs
Oddly very little is known of St. James’s Well but the Potter’s well on which the plaque reads:
“A spring harnessed in 1720 when Midhope Old Pottery was built south-east of the bridge by M.W Gough, Potter. It is said the troughs came from the manorial hall. Until 1919, it was the only water source in Nether Midhope.”
“A publication of approximately 20 years ago gives some additional information about the Potter’s well: The water in this well was known as Idle Water it is known fact that you can boil an egg in it but it wont face another one.”
The spring was believed to be healing one:
“it is very fine add to children who suffer with whooping cough. Take a pint from the well, and give the patient a sip each day until it is gone and the result is a good recovery.”
Such customs can easily disappear from a parish as quickly as they begin, often being the initiative of an enthusiastic curate, who dies or moves on and the new incumbent either fails to keep it up or in some cases in openly in opposition to the custom. This is certainly true of the Church of England. And certainly true of customs associated with wells…the celebration of which is not to everyone’s taste. Fortunately, the revival was due to an Anglo-Catholic incumbent and the ministry here has remained High Church ever since….it’s probably unlikely to change and so the custom remains safe.
I arrived in the small village just as the service had started in the delightful old chapel of St. James. The lane up to it was packed with cars such that passing along it was difficult. Indeed at one point a combine harvester wanted to pass and came millimetres from the wing mirror of a parked car – I should think they are used to that around there.
I came into the chapel just as the Canon was discussing holy wells and was remarking about Harrogate and Buxton and what was known of their holy well, St. James. After around 40 minutes of the service the congregation assembled outside with the Loxley Silver band.
On this autumn afternoon, the weakness of the sun can be felt, leaves are beginning to fall….the bright red colour and sounds of the Locksley Brass Band give a vibrant jab in the arm on a grey afternoon. The hymn O Praise Ye the Lord is sung heartily at the entrance to the lane where the well is located. The band remained at the road way as the congregation lead by the clergy walked down the well. The well is located below this lane and is accessed by a gate and steps…down into a very muddy field…not surprisingly many of the attendees watched the ceremony from lane above. The well itself is surrounded by metal railings. One of the clergy stated we can get inside and opened a gate and one by one they entered. It is not a large enclosure and I wondered if they were attempting some sort of world record ‘how many clergy can we get in an enclosed space.’ Once there the following was recited:
“ Bless the Lord all created things, Sing his praise and exalt him forever, O Let the earth bless the Lord, Sing his praise and exalt him forever, Bless the Lord you mountains and hills, Sing his praise and exalt him forever, Bless the Lord all that grows in the ground, Sing his praise and exalt him forever.”
A porcelain cup was produced and at this point the Venerable Steve Wilcockson bent down and parting the green slime on the surface filled it with remarkably clean water. Fortunately he did not partake in it but upon saying the blessing poured the water to libate the well and effectively make it holy again! The blessing went:
“We give thanks to the Virgin Mary, Jesus St Paul, St Peter, John the Baptist and particular St James under who’s patron this well brings forth water and brings it to this water to the parish….In the faith of Jesus Christ we dedicate this well to the glory of god, in the honour of St James, in the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost. Heavenly father, we thank you for the gift of water to refresh the earth and make things grow Bless hallow and sanctify this well.”
The group then traipse down the hill to the other well – the Potter’s Well – a decidedly more secular affair. Here the water was drawn by the canon and then poured to the ground again. Here not only was the well blessed but so was the Parish. The band was put to fine use with the playing of the Hymn Glorious things of these are spoke and then the National Anthem was sung and everyone retired to a light tea at that other great British institution – the pub!
A brief custom but a delightful one. Just as the celebration finished an out of breath man arrived ready with his camera…”have I missed it?” He had…but it’ll be on next year, the community clear recognise the importance of their waters. I cannot agree more when Wilson (1990) notes:
“An event such as decorating and blessing a well requires very little financial outlay, and whatever money is spent is amply compensated for by the enjoyment and community spirit which the event engenders. Bradfield Parish council must be congratulated for their vision and initiative. Other councils take note.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 Holy Well, Cranfield Co Antrim
The Eye Well
St Brigid’s Well: Loch Dearg
The Abbey Well
Tobernalt in Co. Sligo
“Do not leave rags” notices, St Malachy’s Well
Last month I introduced the rag wells associated with Lincolnshire we now move southwards to explore the other sites.
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?
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.
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!
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!?
This one’s been here for a while!
And there are many many more…perhaps enough for another blog post at the end!