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Mysterious creatures of springs and wells – Frogs and wells

Frog and toads not unsurprisingly you might think are associated with springs. Two old English words O.E frosc meaning frog or O.E paddock for a ‘toad’ and their derivations can be found across the country.

In Essex there are a number of Freshwell derivations which suggest from Frosc. The earliest being a Freshwell mentioned in 1086 in Great Sampford, Freshwell in the 13th century and another in Saffron Walden first mentioned in 1605. In Panfield there was a Froshwell mentioned in 1586 and Upminster a Frogwell.

There seems a strange conglomeration of such sites in Essex and elsewhere it is more common to find toads. In Staffordshire, Padwalle first mentioned in 1481in Longnor and Padwell in Barborough, as Padwell (1830) and Edwalston and Wyaston a 1314 Padewalle. In Leicestershire there is a Paddock Well noted in 1638 in Church Langton, Leicestershire and Padwell in Fulstow (from the 1840 Tithe map) and Tadewell a 13th century mention in Ferriby. Kent’s Birling has a Puddle Well noted in 1837 and a Tadwell in Minster in Sheppey (noted in 1840).   There are surely others but why?

The obvious answer is that frogs and toads live in springs. However, they do not or rather very rarely. I’ve never seen one in a spring or well – perhaps the rarity offers a reason but it may be deeper than that. Toads in particular have supernatural connotations and a clue may be found in the Frogwell at Acton Burnell in Shropshire which folklore suggests the well was a guardian. Did people visit these wells to utilise the frogs for magical practices or was the frog seen as some sort of harmful creature.

Another possible source is that these animal represent totem animals which specific prehistoric groups associated with – akin to the spirit animals of first nation groups such as in the USA and Canada. This might explain the frequency of them in areas such as Essex perhaps.

Did St. Patrick visit the Lake District? St Patrick’s Well, Patterdale

In Charles Hope’s 1893 Legendary lore of Holy wells St Patrick’s Well Patterdale is the only site mentioned twice in both Cumbria and Westmorland:

“PATTERDALE: ST. PATRICK’S WELL: St. Patrick’s Well is situated near the chapel in Patterdale.

PATTERDALE : ST. PATRICK’S WELL: As Saint Patrick passed down this beautiful valley he is said to have founded the church and blessed the well. Thus we have St. Patrick’s church and St. Patrick’s well to this day, the ancient name of the valley being Patrickdale.

For many centuries the Holy Well was used for the purposes of baptism.- — Rev. J. Wilson.”

St Patrick in Cumbria?

As Hope notes St Patrick passed by but how? A local tradition tells that he was shipwrecked off the south Cumbria coast and the local people here looked after him. The earliest reference appears to be Nicolson & Burn in their 1777  The History and Antiquities of the Counties of Westmorland and Cumberland, who say:

 “so called probably from St Patrick, to whom the chapel seems to be dedicated… and nigh unto the chapel is a well called St Patrick’s well”.

The Rev W.P Morris wrote in 1903

“During his short stay here he caused a church to be built (probably of wood) and that he also baptised a number of the inhabitants at a well, and the district was afterwards known as Patrickdale”

Is it a back derivation?

The name was recorded as Patrichesdale, meaning ‘Patrick’s Valley’, in 1184 but equally this apparently refers to a twelfth-century landownwer and at some point the saint was attached. Certainly by 1787 the name had stuck as it appears as St Patrick’s Well appears on Clarke’s map of the Lakes. So despite attempts of topographers and cartographers it probably has very little to do with the saint. There is a record of a cappella de Patricdale in 1348 which may have confused the issue.

However, in his Confessio St Patrick states that he was brought up in Britain in a place called Bannaven Taburniae. Here his father was a deacon and grandfather a priest and from here he was kidnapped by raiders and sold into slavery.  This Bannaven Taburniae has not been identified but of course it could be in Cumbria. The evidence being that the saint was taken to Ireland suggesting a west coast location and looking at the name it could be Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall or Glannoventa where substantial bath house ruins remain near Ravenglass which is even nearer. So it is possible.

The well today

The well is one of the most substantial in Cumbria being a small stone building with a pointed roof akin to a small chapel made of grey stone with a slate roof. The well was dry when I visited but apparently it is more often full of water especially in the spring and summer. Fr John Musther’s in his 2017 Springs of Living Water states that the water had healing properties. The constructor of the well is not known but it is evidently some local estate owner. The Rev Morris stated that it was constructed in the 18th Century to satisfy the “idle curiosity of visitors” and did not think it was in the correct location. Dry or otherwise if you can manage the road and the visitors it is a delightful find in the Lake district.

The healing wells of Ashover, Derbyshire

The hydrolatic history in this small village is very interesting with two hydros and a number of noted healing springs. The first noted by Binnall (1940) was St. or Sir William’s Well (SK 349 637) but this is perhaps not a holy well at all. The name may have changed at the Reformation although local historian Mr. Banks, believes it was probably named after a local benefactor, the saint prefix being as an error of the ordnance surveyors. Its only mention is in reference to the conversion of the school in a 1830s Charity Commission report. It has now been culverted away and was at the junction of Malthouse Lane and the land leading up to the hillside, probably when the houses were built here in the 1970s.

More significant is Cripton Well (SK 345 638) which lies on Cripton Lane and was said to have health giving properties and indeed despite an area surrounded by other springs was much frequented by the hydro residents. It arises beneath some old moss covered stonework and first fills a small circular basin. Its water was said to never run dry and produces a considerable flow joining a small brook. Does its name refer to St. Crispin or local family?

There is a field name recording Nan’s Well, first in 1842 Tithe Award when it is noted as Nan’s Well Close. Nan is often a vulgarisation of St. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus. This would apparently be the same as the Old Woman’s Well (SK 348 627) noted in 1900 on the O/S map. The name may also record a pagan deity (there are similarly dedicated wells especially in Yorkshire). The O/S still shows the site but marked as a spring. However, field work failed to locate the exact site as the area has become mudded by cattle and lost.

The Chalybeate Spa (SK 343 633) still exists being found as a rather muddy area along a footpath just at the edge of Marsh brook. There is very little to see but a ferruginous deposit in some of the puddles where the footpath crosses the brook on a stone slab. It is a very insignificant site no even discernable as a spring. It was drunk for medicinal purposes in the 18th and 19th centuries, the site being noted by Short (1734). A local legend states that it ran faster at night than day. Whether there was any structure here is unclear it does now look very appetising!

Confusingly another spring called Bath Spring (SK 344 644) was used in the early 1700s and a house was established nearby now Bath House Farm. The venture appears to have been unsuccessful and what apparently was the spring is an inaccessible boggy hole.

Mysterious creatures of wells and springs: The Lambton Worm

“The worm shot down the middle stream
Like a flash of living light,
And the waters kindled round his path
In rainbow colours bright.

But when he saw the armed knight
He gathered all his pride,
And, coiled in many a radiant spire,
Rode buoyant o’er the tide.

When he darted at length his dragon Strength
An earthquake shook the rock
And the fire-flakes bright fell round the knight
As unmoved he met the shock.

Though his heart was stout it quailed, no doubt
His very life-blood ran cold
As round and round the wild worm wound
In many a grappling fold.”

So write a local Poet of perhaps the most famous British dragon legend. The story dates from the 14th century, where the heir to Lambton Hall instead of attending Mass would fish. One particularly Sunday he said to have secured a fine fish. Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells accounts:

“he exerted all his skill and strength to bring his prey to land. But what were his horror and dismay on finding that, instead of a fish, he had only caught a worm of most unsightly appearance! He hastily tore the thing from his hook, and flung it into a well close by, which is still known by the name of the Worm Well.”

A stranger is said to have remarked that he had never seen such a creature and said it was like an eft, only it had nine holes on each side of its mouth and that he had caught the Devil himself.  However, the worm remained forgotten in its well until one day it emerged, having outgrown the well and moved to the river where it lay during the day around a rock and by night around a hill, causing it to become stepped as a result of its twining. The hill remains called Worm Hill.

Lambton Worm - Wikipedia

Such a beast then terrorised the area, eating lambs, chasing cattle and suckling cows’ milk. When it reached Lambton Hall, where the household was terrified, the young son was no-where to be seen and so the steward rose to the occasion. He ordered that a trough should be filled with milk and every day the beast would drink the milk and cause no harm returning to their resting places. This happened every year for seven years until the son and heir returned. He was a wiser and more mature man and seeing his land’s desolate took to a local wise woman to ask what to do. She at first scolded him for his wasteful life and bring the beast to the parish, but realising that he was repentant, told him to wear a suit of thickly studded with spears. He stood on the rock in the river with his sword and he was warned that should he fail – nine generations of the manor would not die in their beds! A tireless fight ensued between the worm and the heir in which a number of blows did not stop the beast but finally as the beast wrapped around him he made a body blow severing the beast in two. These two sections were separated and floated down the river…never to be united.

Worm Hill, Washington By Peter GHughes at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8258962

Not far away, is Long Witton’s Thruston Wells which were guarded by dragon, a winged serpent who valiantly  fought Guy, Earl of Warwick too, but each time he was wounded  the creature would dip his tail into one of the wells and was healed. Soon Guy realised this and leapt before the well and speared it through the heart blocking the beast’s ability to reach the well.

There are many other such serpent and well stories. Why? From a biological background the description of the Lambton Worm is interesting…it sounds like a Lamprey, and perhaps as this was a Royal fish, so peasantry did not often see it. Mix this with discovery of fossils – often found exposed near water perhaps – and the imaginary of Pagan vs Christian and you have the Dragon.

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

The clootie tree at St Euny's Well by Chris Gunns
The clootie tree at St Euny’s Well

Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Chris Gunns and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Cloutie tree near Madron Well by Jim Champion
Cloutie tree near Madron Well

This tree is alongside the gravel path to Madron Well Chapel, and is hung with clouties (pieces of rags and clothing) which is a traditional custom originally carried out to ask the well spirits to cure illnesses and hurts. The actual Madron Holy Well is about 70 metres west of this point at SW44553274 but it is not easy to get to because of the wet conditions underfoot. It is much easier to continue along the path to the ruined chapel where there is another well basin which was also considered to be a holy well.
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Jim Champion and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The cloutie tree near Madron Well by Rod Allday
The cloutie tree near Madron Well

‘Clouties’ are strips of fabric which are attached to the tree near this holy well – as the fabric decays the ailment from which the supplicant is suffering is said to fade away.
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Rod Allday and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The cloutie tree near Madron Well by Chris Gunns
The cloutie tree near Madron Well

‘Clouties’ are strips of fabric which are attached to the tree near this holy well – as the fabric decays the ailment from which the supplicant is suffering is said to fade away.
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Chris Gunns and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Sancreed Holy Well by Michael Murray
Sancreed Holy Well

This is the Cloutie Tree guarding the entrance to the Well.
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Michael Murray and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

St Credan’s Well, Sancreed by Humphrey Bolton
St Credan’s Well, Sancreed

Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   ©Copyright Humphrey Bolton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: The hot springs of Yemen and Zimbabwe

As a final instalment of my exploration of Abecedary of healing and holy springs I will cover Y and Z the last countries – as there is not a country beginning with X!

In the dry arid environment of the Yemen spring are of considerable importance. In the mountainous regions of the country in the Damt area. Here the springs are visited by people to expel worms from their digestive system and suffering from rheumatism, arthritis and skin allergies. As a consequence of its usages and relative close proximity to the country’s major cities

New spas have been developed in the town of Damt and its surrounding areas, including Turkish baths, and swimming pools, with hotels developed with their own hot springs. Thus emphasising the commercial importance of such sites to the Yemeni community.

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In Zimbabwe there are around 30 noted springs many which are hot springs and considerable medicinal. At Kariba, the elders of the community considered the water to be considered sacred and local people make wishes by throwing coins in the water. The water is thought to be so sacred that it is forbidden to wash or use soaps in the water as not to insult the ancestors.

This water is believed to heal a wide range of complaints. Its 90⁰C waters are used to heal sore backs and skin complaints and people travel to the site to swim in the water and cure it.  Swollen legs and rheumatism are also said to be cured by its waters.

However, although the bubbling water includes a wide range of minerals such as sulphur giving it the bad egg smell,, sodium, silicates, potassium, chlorides, calcium and magnesium  analysis of the water does not reveal any chemicals that confirm this belief.

Another noted site are the Chibwatata Hot springs near Binga sacred to the Ba Tonga tribe. The site was famed for various reasons but in particular it was associated with rainmaking. The only person who could visit the springhead being the Rainmaker who would have to stand in the scalding hot water otherwise they would be seen as an imposter! The spring water was also thought to give good luck or remove bad luck. This is especially for those thought to be controlled by demons who are advised to visit them and swim in them – further downstream from the springhead of course.

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Water is taken away from the springs and sprinkled around their homes to ward off evil spirits or prevent mental illness. A view even adopted by the local Christian communities. Most families keep a supply of the spring water in their houses for boiling special herbs and for teething children due to its calcium levels. It is also drunk after large meals to help ease stomach pains and digestive disorders.

Even animals such as worms, insects, crabs and plants, growing near the springs are used for healing purposes, dried and mixed into the spring water, by virtue of their ability to survive near the water. An interesting use is related to the emergence of the spring it is reported that giving the dried materials to barren women mixed with the spring water and tiger fish bones can unblock a women’s womb just as the water jets out of the vents from the earth’s crust.

Interesting the survival of the site has been at risk. European settlers established communal baths near the sites and the expansion of a dam brought other groups to the spring. The Ba Tonga complain that their own tribal customs are being eroded by other groups who come to the spring to do rituals during the dark and washing directly in the spring. However, the cultural importance is being recognised and sites are now being fenced off and preserved as national monuments.