Category Archives: Well dressing
A Holy sepulchre Bunyan’s holy Well
“Just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.”
So writes John Bunyan in the puritan classic Pilgrim’s Progress, the sepulchre in question is believed to be Stevington’s Holy Well (SP 990 535) in Bedfordshire. Bunyan only lived five miles away and is known to have preached at the nearby cross and meadows near the well.
Bedfordshire itself is a poorly studied area for holy and healing waters, and Stevington’s sacred spring is the best known and more structurally significant in the county, although a similar structure can be seen at Biddenham Bridge. An account at the time of its listing in 1964 records:
“Well structure. Recess in churchyard wall at East end of church. Stone voussoirs in limestone rubble. Recently restored.”
The Holy Well too is in an unusual location situated beneath the Parish church arising from the rocky outcrop. Such a location causes much debate amongst antiquarians. Was the church built upon a holy spring purposely to sanctify it? Was it a pagan site? Or is it coincidental? The church is dedicated to St. Mary
The earliest mention of the well is on the Enclosure Award of 1807 reference is made to Hallwell and Wells Pightle. The later 1883 calls it Holy Well. Neither suggests a dedication but as Harte (2008) in his English Holy Wells suggests it may be an ancient Saxon one. However, Fisher (1812) in the Gentlemen’s magazine records:
“From the rock on which Stevington Church is built issues a spring of clear and most excellent water. This spring is called in old writings, and even to the present time, Holy Well. The principal stream proceeds from the arched recess under the north chancel of the church.”
What these old writings are is unclear, antiquarian Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells records:
“There is a well or spring at Stevington-on-Ouse, seven miles up the valley from Bedford. On the ordnance six-inch map it is engraved “Holy Well,” in Old English lettering, a plan adopted by them for distinguishing ancient buildings or relics from modern institutions. Stevington holy well is arched over, and built into the churchyard wall of St. Mary’s Church, and abuts upon the modern alluvium of the Ouse, which there forms a considerable flat. The church stands on rising ground, formed of alternating beds of limestone and clay, which holds up the water percolating the limestone-hence, probably, the spring. The water was clear, sparkling, and tasteless, although I was prepared to find it a mineral water of some kind. At one time people visited this holy well in considerable numbers, but, like many others, it appears now to have lost its popularity.”
This lack of regard for the spring is suggested by Harvey (1972-8) in his Hundred of Willey who notes:
“It was the customary to wash sheep from Carlton Hill Farm, and from Stagsden, as well as from Stevington, in Holywell”
J. Steele Elliott (1933) work on wells of the county in the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society , so far the only account notes that the Manor house was used for ‘invalids and pilgrims attracted by the well’s virtues’. One of these virtues was to cure eye complaints as well as its waters being renowned in not freezing or drying out. However, Elliott is probably confusing the manor house for the Hospitium the ruins of which were there in the 1600s and may have been built for pilgrims visiting the well but there is no evidence for either being used!
It would seem that this venerable holy well however is having a new lease of life as a site of well dressing. This first begun in 2012 for the Jubilee, using a design being based on Bunyan’s Christian standing by the cross and his burden rolling into the said sepulchre, taken from the Parish church and a naturally fitting design. In 2013 they used the window in Bunyan’s Bedford church showing him imprisoned writing from his illuminated cell. Both considering the ‘immaturity’ of the team was brilliantly done. An account in the St Mary the Virgin Stevington newsletter June 2013 records:
“One of the biggest labours was the Well Dressing. This year Jane O’Connor led a team of volunteers patiently pricking in everything from petals to grasses, from seeds to egg shells to form the representation of the famous picture of Bunyan languishing in his prison cell. An innovation this year was the second collage prepared by the children, somewhat optimistically titled ‘Sunny Stevington.’ In the event the optimism was justified; we had the best two days weather wise of the year so far. We welcomed the Bishop of Bedford for his first visit to Stevington. He rose to the occasion and managed in his sermon to bring together the significance of the Bunyan, the Well and the visit of the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth under the theme of pilgrimage. The choir sang as well as I have heard and the service was completed with a procession for the Bishop to bless the Well followed by refreshments back in church. It was really gratifying not only to see so many in church, but also to note the number of people who appeared just to see the well dressing.
And long may this tradition continue and bring more modern pilgrims to be drawn into the peaceful place which is Stevington’s Holy Well.
The veneration of water in 12 objects…number one the clootie
Every month this year I am covering the veneration of water in a different item, 12 in all. This month it will be the clootie or rag. As the title suggests.
Many years ago when my interest in the subject was first piqued I visited the famous Madron Well. To be honest I was not very impressed with the well; a square concreted hole in the ground, if I remember devoid of any atmosphere. No what impressed me was what was attached to the trees; hundred and thousands of bits of cloth. I had no idea why they were there but clearly there was significance to them. Soon after I purchased the Bord’s influential Sacred Waters and all was explained.
Basically, the custom would involve the piece of rag, traditionally although rarely now, a piece of clothing, being dipped upon the well’s water rubbed on the afflicted area and then hung on the tree. As this cloth rooted, so it was thought the ailment would disappear. A word on nomenclature the word clootie commonly used for the rags is a recent spread it is originally limited to Scotland.
As far as I am aware no countrywide study has been made of the distribution of the custom, but it appears largely to divided into two blocks in the British Isles. From my research, I have found no evidence of the custom in the south –east. It is traditionally absent from all the counties south of the Thames i.e Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. Similarly there appears no record in the home countries of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire, although only two of these counties have been fully studied. As we travel westward it is encountered in Somerset with Compton Martin’s Rag Well and Cornwall as well as parts of Wales, although Devon is lacking any evidence and that for Dorset appears modern (see below).
It is absent from East Anglia, which is interesting because in Lincolnshire, a county boarding Norfolk it is frequently read about. Here there are eight seven such sites and one is simply called the Ragged Springs. For example at Utterby the:
“Holy Well, on the east side of the parish, is in repute for medicinal virtues, among the vulgar, who, after using it, tie rags on the surrounding bushes, to propitiate the genius of the spring”.
Of the traditional pre-20th century sites none continue the tradition and ironically another, probably non-holy well, the Ludwell has become the focus of a modern rag leaving tradition. Interestingly, it is recorded in Nottingham, but absent from the rest of the county. Do is there any record in Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Staffordshire.
The record in Nottingham is interesting as there is confusion between the sites of the famed St. Ann’s Well and that known as the spring is called the Rag Well. To the west only Cheshire has a record. Hole (1937) noted that at Audley End a holy tree:
“those who came to the well hung rags or other offerings upon.”
Yorkshire has a number of sites, as noted above. St. Helen’s Well, Great Hatfield near Hull has a plaque reading:
“Before the sunrise, dear Helen, I stand by this spring and intreat thee, sweat saint, good health to me bring, for with eyes firmly fixed on this ancient hawthorn, see I place thee a rag from my dress today”
An early reference of one is for one is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner which describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that
“they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts”.
Most famed Yorkshire rag well was that almost lost at Thorpe Arch, where photos from the turn of the 19th century show it festooned with torn strips. Haigh (1875) says that:
“twenty years ago the Rev E. Peacopp, curate of Healaugh, informed me that shreds of linen were to be seen attached to the bushes which overhang this well”.
Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm”.
The ritual was described as having to be done before sunrise where the cloth would be dipped in the well and then tied to the tree whilst making a wish. Of St Swithin’s Well Stanley, in his Ancient Wells of Wakefield, 1822:
“when the well was open it was near the hedge on which used to be hung bits of rag with which people had washed. These were left hanging under the delusive idea that as the rags wasted away so would the part affected, which had been washed, therewith proceed to mend and become sound”.
In Durham Jarrow’s Bede Well and in Northumberland the Lady Well, Cheswick were both rag wells. However, Scotland has three of the most famous rag or cloottie wells. The most famed is that which despite the given name of St. Curidan is better known as the Clouttie well and is the one which has attracted the greatest controversy. Found in Munlochy on the A832, here rags festoon every mm of the surrounding trees and became so unsightly that the decision was taken to remove many of them and surf the bad luck! The well is particularly visited on Beltaine, the day before the 1st of May and traditionally children were left over night to cure them much like Madron’s Well.
This distribution would suggest an association with our Celtic heritage, although that perhaps is not strengthened by the Lincolnshire sites. Another theory is that it may have been a tradition associated with the Gypsy community and certainly Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and the West Country are certainly traditional grounds. However, this does not explain the absence from areas such as the New Forest in Hampshire.
An ancient tradition?
The placing of clooties is linked to Patronal days or the Christianised pagan Gaelic-Celtic feast days: Imbolc (1st February), Beltane (1st May), Lughnasadh (1st August) and Samhain (1st November). It is possibly that the clootie was an offering to a deity at the spring.
A modern tradition
Visiting holy wells across the country one is struck by the presence of rags on a wide range of sites, many of which would not have had them before I assume. I would imagine that few of the people attaching the rags or more often ribbons are doing it for memento reasons rather than healing ones, to leave something there as a token. Yet by doing so they are continuing an ancient tradition…only spoilt by the use of modern non biodegradable fabrics. This is clearly what is going on at St. Kenelm’s Well where there are clothes on a nearby bush and similarly at St. Augustine’s Well, at Cerne which according to Thompson & Thompson (2004) book on Wells of the Mainland had:
“a few coloured ribbons hang from neighbouring trees – evidently an attempt to perpetuate its memory as a rag-well”.
And so it continues. Many wells and springs beyond the natural range appear to be growing in their clottie collections. A quick look on the internet even shows a few which I have done and I can still see the ribbon, sadly it wasn’t as biodegradable as I thought! How to confuse the researcher!!
A Well for December – St Anthony’s Well Cinderford
Deep in the woods around Cinderford is one of England’s most mysterious sacred springs. The most famed of a number of ancient and sacred springs in the Forest of Dean. This is St. Anthony’s Well. Its remote location befits this hermit saint and one could quite image in some dark and distant time a hermit eking out an existence beside this large spring. So powerful is the spring in fact that the easiest way to find it is to follow the stream back to its source. When one does one is greeted by a substantial structure. Richardson (1930) in his work cataloguing the water supply of the county notes that it flowed from:
“ the foot of a steep bank into a stone-slab-covered dip. From the dip it is piped into a basin measuring approximately 11 ft. 6 in. by 8 ft. by 5 ft., in which there is usually about 3 ft of water.”
Fortunately this description stands today.
A healing spring
The spring was famous for curing skin complaints. Rudder (1779) in his New History of Gloucestershire states that:
“Bathing in this water is an infallible cure for the itch, and other cutaneous disorders; and a gentleman of Little Dean assured me, that his dogs were cured of the mange after being thrown into it two or three times. The water is extremely cold.”
MacLean (1881–2) in Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeology Society Transactions states that it cured leprosy and Palmer (1994) rheumatism. There was a ritual associated with the power of this water. Nicholls (1858) in The Forest of Dean: An Historical and Descriptive Account adds that:
“its peculiar efficacy being combined with the rising of the sun, the month of May, and the visits to it being repeated nine times in succession.”
Palmer (1994) in his Folklore of Gloucestershire suggested that:
“twelve visits were needed, with one step taken on the first, two on the second, and so on.”
Many authors agree that its waters are very cold. I remember my visit to the site in the 1990s with my father. He had been suffering with skin problems and upon hearing upon its properties tried the cure….he dipped his feet in the water, complained about its severe cold temperature, but then went around nine times. He was not cured, not because it was summer not May but because his skin complaint was due to diabetes!
Another claim for its waters was that it cured eye complaints as well. Certainly the water is very clear and pure. In the late 1980s the local church on Ascension Day visited the well and dressed it, although it is unclear whether this was of a Derbyshire form. The well was dressed in the 00s by local pagans which had mixed responses.
It is likely that the well was associated with Flaxley Abbey founded in 1148, but there is no evidence for this association. Indeed the first reference appears to be as St. Anthonyes Well in 1669 and is marked on the 1881 OS map. Beyond this no firm history is known other than that recorded in topographical works above. Yet its old mossy stone work and clear water speak volumes of its great age. St Anthony’s feast day was in December I am sure the water than is colder than ever!
A well for November: St Hilda’s Well Hinderwell
The village of Hinderwell is so named after one of Yorkshire’s most noted saints – St. Hilda.
Who was Saint Hilda?
Hilda was an Abbess of the early Christian abbey at Whitby in the 7th century. She is said to have had a retreat in the area which may have been associated with the spring and caused the church to be established there, although the current church is 18th century. A local legend says that she prayed for water and a spring arose.
Is it named after Saint Hilda?
There is some confusion over the origin of the name Hinderwell. The settlement was called Hildrewell which may possibly mean ‘elder spring’, but of course Norse influence could have affected Hilden changing it to Hildar.
Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore states that:
“Tradition says that the monks, in the journey between Whitby Abbey and Kirkham Abbey, always made this well one of their resting place.”
In the churchyard is preserved a delightful spring head enclosed in a stone chamber with coursed rusticated stone walls supporting a flat slab roof. It is reached by a flight of well worn steps
Early pictures show a pump and Hope (1893) states it was so covered. However, this was removed when it was restored in 1912 by a Hilda Palmer of Grimple Hall, when it was restored to something more fitting.
There does not appear to be any observation on St. Hilda’s patronal day on the 17th of November recorded, but the well was visited on Ascension Day as Hope (1893) notes:
“On Ascension Day the children of the neighbourhood assemble here carrying bottles containing pieces of liquorice, which they fill at the well. Hence Ascension Day is frequently termed Spanish-Water Day.”
In modern times the first Sunday in July has become a celebration of the well, although pilgrimage does occur on or near to the Saint’s day by local Catholic groups. It is during their services however that the water is the well is still blessed and taken I believe. During the July celebration well dressings are done, possibly Britain’s most northerly consisting of a triptych in July 2013 consisting of an image of the saint.
The evidence for a hermitage?
One aspect which strikes the visitor to Hinderwell is that the church and of course the spring is on a mound, an ideal shape and arrangement for a hermitage: In a way a symbolic island in a sea of wilderness. There is also good sea access from Port Mulgrave, meaning communication to Whitby where Hilda’s monastery existed.
St Hilda was associated by turning all the snakes in the area headless. They can be found in the rocks of the coast around here- we would call them ammonites.
A secluded well and chapel: Chadkirk’s St Chad’s Well and Chapel
Nestling in a quiet valley beneath the suburban overspill of Stockport is Chadkirk chapel and its well, protected in this cocoon in a country park.
A picturesque chapel
The first record of the Chapel is around 1306, but by the early 16th century it was referred to as a Chantry Chapel with a Chaplain, Ralph Green, in Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535. This suggests a pre-Reformation chapel on the site perhaps nearer the well. However by 1621 when William Webb wrote about the Macclesfield Hundred he noted:
“At the foot of Werneth Low, towards the merzey, lies an old dearn and deavly chappell, so people call desert places out of company and resort: called Chad Chappell where seems to have been a monkish cell.”
An archaeological survey undertaken in 1994 showed that there was a previous chapel on the site which was the same size. The present chapel is aligned east west and is a simple two cell building much in keeping with an Anglo-Saxon style. The oldest part was revealed to be the north and east walls of the chancel. Upon these stone walls is a wooden frame in traditional Cheshire black and white style.
Is it an ancient well?
“A picturesque well near the chapel – its walls built of rubble stone, covered with moss and ferns – bears the name of St Chad’s Well, or the Holy Well, and is traditionally said to have been the scene of miraculous cures.”
Despite this it is a problematic well, as it is first named in 1872 on the first Ordnance Survey. A stone found in a garden nearby at Romiley is mentioned on the information display board at the well is linked to the ancient British head cult, it shows three heads and its tentatively linked to the well…very I would say.
The guide, A Short history of Chadkirk Chapel says:
“The well was probably here before that time but these small details were sometimes missed off the maps.”
The well house was probably built around 18th -19th century and is built of sandstone blocks having a doorway with a flat lintel where there is evidence of both inner and outer door. It was probably roofed protecting it. Three steps step down into a rectangular well chamber, with a chamber measuring 1.8m x 1.6m. The wells seem to have been repaired or renovated several times in the past.
Every year since 1998 at the end of July a well dressing of the Derbyshire style has been produced and it is opened by the Mayor and is associated with the very popular festival.
What about St. Chad?
The earliest reference to the saint is possibly in the Domesday Book of 1086 as ‘Cedde’ although some believe that this refers to Cheadle. There is a tradition that the saint visited the area, but there is no direct evidence. Sadly, this is a trend quite common in wells associated with this saint.
A well for September…St Edith’s Well, Kemsing
St. Edith’s Well (TQ 552 586) lies below the Pilgrim’s Way in Kent and is the county’s most notable and best preserved sites. It is one of only two wells in the county which are dressed and the only one with a long lasting, over 50 years, tradition. this being St Edith’s procession held on the Sunday nearest to St. Edith’s Day.
A collection of cures
Chiefly, it was noted for its cure of eye complaints, and Watt (1923) also notes that it cured women’s barrenness. Belief in its curative power continued until the early 1900s. Its fabric is presumably ‘mediaeval’, and according to most authorities was once enclosed within a religious establishment, who were probably responsible for its upkeep. However there s neither archaeological nor written evidence of one but there is a recording in 1419 of a chapel of St. Edith the Virgin, which presumably was near the well and perhaps held a relic. Sadly, we do not really know.
A local saint
St. Edith (961-84 AD) was the daughter of the early Saxon king, Edgar and Queen Wulfthryth. Despite being nominated Abbess of Winchester, Barking and Amesbury, she refused these positions, disliking state affairs, preferring to commune with the poor and animals. This made her popular among her countrymen, who immediately recognised her saintly attributes. Despite this, her canonisation was not recognised everywhere, and Cnut’s scepticism, prevented her feast day being adopted in many areas. Those who championed her, used miracles at her tomb and her incorruptible thumb, as evidence for her saintliness and she was canonised, with her body being transferred to Wilton in 997 AD. She was said to have been born on land which is now covered by a property called the Box, but again it here is no evidence.
Evidence would suggest that her local popularity was deeply rooted in pagan belief! It is interesting to note, that an image of St. Edith was erected within the churchyard, which according to Lambarde (1571), prevented mildew and the blight of corn and wheat crops. Lambarde (1571) describes a ritual associated with the belief, and the following appears significant:
“Priest made uses to toll the greatest portion, and then to take all handful or little more of the residue the which after aspersion of Holy Water, and mumbling a fewe woordes of conjuration, he first dedicated to the image of Saint Edithe and then delivered it back to the parte that brought.”
This appears to be some persistence of an ancient fertility rite to a pagan deity, further supported by with the cure of cure barren women. Lambarde (1571) believed this, suggesting the Roman god, Robigus (after Robigo, a canker of corn), was the earlier cult focus here. It is recorded that similar ‘sacrifices’ were made to ‘him’, and so it seems likely that even the saint’s effigy could have directly replaced his and the church being built on his temple. The holy water, used in the ritual, may have originated from the well, and in pre-Christian days this may have been an important part of the ritual.
The well today
Today it lies within a small garden of remembrance forming a focal point for the original village. It is approximately three feet high, a round rag stone structure, with a series of steps approach the well. Access now, via these steps, appears impossible, the gate being locked. Watt (1917) notes that the structure was forlorn, and then repaired, and then forlorn again, but now appears in remarkable condition, being within recent years cleared of much of its overgrown ivy! To prevent rubbish falling into the well, brown wiring has been set across, both the well passage, and shaft. A considerable depth of water was present in 2013, and even after a long drought, in 1995. Indeed, I have been informed that it has never been known to dry up! A local belief conveniently ignoring that it was recorded dry at the beginning of this century! Today the well is the best it has ever been although sadly one cannot access the water directly due to the wiring up of the steps.
A modern pilgrimage
Even today, it is pleasing to note that the well is still an important and respected part of the village. It is depicted as the centre piece of a fine tapestry in the church, and on the village sign.
Two separate religious observations are undertaken on the day. In the morning, a procession, established in 1961, after the well was established. It passes through the village from the church is traditionally held on the Sunday nearest the saint’s day September 16th. Every ten years this forms part of a village wide celebration called St. Edith’s Festival, last held in 2011. A banner in the church maybe associated with an earlier 1920s revival perhaps as Mr. Taylor, a local associated with he present Catholic observation suggests.
Traditionally posies have been placed on the well during the service by the congregation, but in the last three years, since the 2011 festival, a well dressing has been undertaken place, last year’s was the Olympics, 2011’s was a picture of the village. This year’s was the harvest and delightfully it was rendered too with a good use of rhubarb seeds for a field and gravel for the signage. Next year’s is planned to be the First World War.
The artists being two local ladies, one of which would appear to have the tradition running through her veins coming from Elmton in Derbyshire, a village with a well dressing tradition, albeit a modern one. Subsequently, the frame is soaked in a paddling pool each year and taken to the village hall where on a table the two worked away using templates to create their art over the week finally finishing on the Saturday before.
I arrived just in time to see the board turn up wheeled on a barrow and just in time to give some extra muscle to set it up beside the well where it was duly staked in. The small group admired their handiwork and then it was covered for the arrival of the church and its congregation. A few minutes later this congregation, following their cross, but sadly no banner, and holding their posies, arrived. The service with the prayer which begins:
“Father each St. Edith’s day, we bring flowers to this well….”
Then the posies were placed upon the walls of the well, the service continuing with a reading of St. Edith’s hymn:
“At this well with great thanksgiving, blessed Edith we record, her short years of holy living, chaste handmaiden of the Lord, May we in her Lord believing, be like her his living sword.”
A thanks giving was given for the water and then the well dressing was revealed to the delight of the congregation. It was great to see that the well continues to be celebrated and the well dressing is a more than welcome innovation. The ceremony ends with prayers of intercession and a collect for St. Edith’s Day, Lord’s Prayer, hymn and blessing. It was a bit disappointing I felt that the support from the village was quite small, especially as everyone here seemed so inviting, but as the service was at 9.45, perhaps it was too early. I recommend moving the service an hour forward and more visitors may be attracted.
Christopher Bells’ Centenary History of the Catholic Church of St Thomas of Canterbury states that Father Phillips, Sevenoaks parish priest from 1916 to 1946, probably revived it around the 1920s. An elderly parishioner told Mr Taylor that the pilgrimage was going in the 1930s, but this was actually on the 16th, not the nearest Sunday as of recent. It is possible that as the village was home of Catholic convert Monsignor Robert Benson, son of Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1890s the observation may be older. I was told that now parishioners come from all part of the parish which covers the villages of Kemsing, Otford, Weald, Borough Green and West Kingsdown as well as Sevenoaks, some walking 8 miles as well journeying by car from London.
It is said that not only does her water cure eyes, but spiritual blindness, and Richard Bateman, the local Anglican vicar, attributed his conversion to Catholicism in part through her intercession.
Certainly the Catholic community may be aware of the need to start later. In the afternoon, a Catholic pilgrimage occurs from the nearest Catholic Church based in Sevenoaks. However, in 2013 although they planned to meet at 3.00, the weather had turned to the worse. The glorious weather of the morning being replaced by a penetrating drizzle, subsequently, the planned Holy Rosary, prayers and St. Edith’s hymn which were to be at the well were moved to nearby Otford Catholic church…hopefully the weather will be more favourable next year and they will return.
2011 well dressing image copyright Heather Porter
2012 well dressing image copyright Heather Porter
Many thanks to Mr. Antony Taylor, Jane Bowden and Erica Cole as well as the congregation of St Mary’s kemsing and especially Heather Porter
Images and post copyright Pixyledpublications.
Gumfreston’s church wells
Wales is much endowed with holy wells many dedicated to local saints. Behind the evocative 14th century church of Gumfreston, lay three wells which should be right be dedicated to some saint, but they only have the name – Church wells. Nevertheless, these wells are a fascinating example of water lore in this region of Wales. Three springs arise here, two enclosed in rough stone walling the other a simple spring. According to tradition, the uppermost spring is pure water, middle one chalybeate and lower one sulphur although all appear to be chalybeate. Francis Jones (1954) Holy Wells of Wales states that the wells were visited on Easter Day and bent pins were dropped into the water. This was called ‘throwing Lent away’, a recognised custom this appears to have been last recorded in the 17th century when the rector of the church was removed by puritans. However, despite the superstitious popularity of the well being removed by the 18th century the water was being analysed. A Dr. Davis, a physician to William IV, described the warers as being chalybeate and were ‘as good as the wells of Tunbridge’. At this time nearby Tenby had developed as a spa and visitors would visit Gumfreston to take the waters and there was a growing business to provide bottles for those unable to reach it. In the 1830s plans were drawn to enclose the springs and build a pump house and changing rooms for these visitors. This does not appear of have occurred but the wells continued to be regarded. Later a Dr. Golding Bird who was a ‘Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Professor of Therapeutics to Guy’s Hospital’. He described it as follows, reported in Samuel Hall and Anna Hall The Book of South Wales 1861:
“In consequence of the shallowness of the basin, this water is apt to vary in composition after heavy rains, from its undergoing dilution; this however applies nearly exclusively to the solid ingredients as the evolution of carbonic acid gas from the subjacent strata is so considerable that the water is, under all circumstances, saturated with the gas, so as to sparkle vividly in a glass, and undergo violent ebullution when laced on the air-pump and very slightly exhausted. The water is remarkable for its singular purity, the quantity of the saline ingredients being exceedingly small. An imperial gallon contains but five grains of lime, part of which exists as carbonate, and is held in solution by an excess of carbonic acid. The exceeding minute quantity of sulphuric acid is remarkable, less being present than in the purist river water. The quantity of oxide of iron is about 2.4 grains of iron. The Gumfreston water is, however, one of the purest hitherto noticed, and owes its medical properties to the iron, and the larges quantity of the carbonic acid it contains. This extreme freedom from saline ingredients, the presence of which constitutes the hardiness of water would render this water of great value to those patients who cannot bear the ordinary chalybeate water. The Gumfreston water resembles that of Malvern in its purity, and of Tunbridge Wells in the quantity if iron it contains, exceeding all other chalybeate waters in Great Britain in the large quantity of Carbonic acid held in solution. In cases of chlorosis, and other forms of deficiency of red blood in the system, this water would be invaluable.”
Traditionally cures such as leg problems were associated with the upper spring due to its shape like a leg, the middle for hands and arms, and the lower for eyes.
Customs associated with the well
Jones notes that it was custom here and at other wells to visit at New Year to get ‘New Year’s Water’. He recalls that children would collect it and carried it to local houses to sprinkle on their front doors with sprigs of evergreen or box. They sung a song which went:
“Here we bring new water from the well so clear, For to worship God with, this happy New Year, Sing levy dew, sing levy dew, the water and the wine, With seven bright gold wires, the bugles that do shine, Sing reign of fair maid, with hold upon her toe, Open you the west door, and turn the old year go. Sing reign of fair maid, with gold upon her chin, Open you the east door, and let the new year in.”
When the custom ceased is unclear, but traditions continue at the well. The custom of throwing Lent away has been recently revived with nails used to symbolise the crucifixion and done on Easter Sunday. Within recent years a number of newer customs have arisen. Davis (2003) in his Sacred Springs states that for a small donation visitors can make a wish or make a prayer and hang a ribbon and bell from one of the trees overhanging the springs. Since the 1990s a simple well dressing has been developed in Easter.
Image and text Copyright Pixyledpublications
A Norfolk field trip
In a previous post, I promised a return to Norfolk…I unfortunately haven’t physically been there but there are still some sites of which I can describe from my original survey.
Located in a private garden is one of the least known holy wells is those found opposite the church called St. Botolph’s Springs (TF 721 219). It is absent from Harte’s work and I have been unable to find its origin. According to local tradition it apparently named after a local saint who baptised converts in them. Little appears to be recorded of him, but clearly the church was founded to Christianise the springs considering its proximity. These appear to be two in number and now flow to fill a large pool in the garden of the house opposite the church called The Springs. There is a small section of stone walling just above the first spring and the spring itself bubbles from underneath this through the chalk. The second spring arises similarly from under a ledge nearer to the church. Whether there are any old fragments of this site is unclear, especially as there appear to be no authorities to confirm that the truth behind the local saint.
Arises in a small copse of bushes on the edge of a field is St Mary’s Well (TM 021 781) whose waters were thought to be good for eyes. It was recently been tidied up with a new fence erected around it although it is a simple spring. There as a number of small stones lying around suggesting a possible structure.
Better reported St Margaret’s Well (TF 680 017) is noted by Chambers (1830) as:
“…to the west of the church is St. Margaret’s Well, at which, in the times of popery, the people diverted themselves on that saint’s day with cakes and ale, music and dancing; alms and offerings were brought, and vows made: all this was called Well worship”.
Here is a confusing one! Reports state that site still arises beside a circular pond fills a small foot wide basin beneath a small obelisk. Water flows sluggishly from this structure but clearly contributes to the pond beside it. However sadly it is not for the said well is now further east where the road is and buried. The oblelisk is spring fed but not the same spring sadly.
East Dereham boasts one of Norfolk’s best and most interesting holy wells. This is St. Withburga’s Well (TF 988 134) which arises behind the church through a flint and stone archway in front of the well basin is a stone coffin lid. The site is protected by railings and since the 1990s there has been a well dressing although not in a Derbyshire style. In 1757 there was an attempt to convert the spring into a minor spa, although never referred to as such. A bath house was constructed over the well and this was restored in 1786 and 1792-3 the latter being undertaken by local man Sir John Fenn and his committee established to repair and maintain the structure. This resulted in a brick built classical building being erected over the well. However, this was finally removed in the 1850s by the Rev Benjamin Armstrong who opposed the structure.
The well is associated with Saxon St. Withburga, daughter of King Annas who died in c 743. The spring is said to have arisen after the monks of Ely Cathedral stole the saint’s relics.
Chambers appears to suggest that there is another St. Withburga’s Well (TF 986 133) some distance from the churchyard but gives no further details. This would appear to have been that at Old Becclesgate where it lay in the garden, however in the cellar which shows evidence of the building being probable monastery site was a supposed well said to be a holy well. Neither site appear to exist.
Records show that St Lawrence’s Well (TG 228 089) in the time of Edward I was a common well and probably served Fullers Hole, where cloth was cleansed and thickened. In 1547 the Court granted the parishioners the lane from the High Street to the well, together with the said well, on the condition that they erect the door at the south end of the lane and keep it open in the day, and shut up securely at night. However, in 1576, Robert Gibson was given a grant of the said lane, or entry, and the well, and had thus to provide at his own charge access to the well. It states:
‘He shall bring the water from the said well in a cock of lead, into the public street, for the ease of the common people, and shall maintain the same.’
In latter times this site was known as St Lawrence’s Pump, and following inscriptions had been applied:
“This Water here cavght, In Sorte as yowe se. From a Spring is brovghte, Threskore Foot and thre. Gybson hath it sowghte, From Saynt Lawrens Wel.”
The site appears in drawings by Cotman (1818) and Willis (1885). Suffling (1887) notes that:
“A few years since, Mr Harry Bullard, a brewer, and well-known patron of his city, transformed it into a public drinking fountain.”
After a number of years of looking rather sorry for itself this is without doubt the most splendid of the wells in this survey, resplendent in its guilt and painted brick work.
A Buxton field trip. Searching for the ancient springs and wells of Buxton
The following is extracted with editing from The Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Derbyshire
The most famed holy and healing well in the county and one which has attracted considerable fame across the county is St. Anne’s Well (SK 058 734) but the town has a number of other springs including another holy well. It is said to be of certain Roman origin as Aquae Arnemetiae, or the waters of the goddess Arnemetia. This may have been a native cult although little is known of it. There may have been an unbroken use from Roman but nothing is known of it until the tenth or eleventh century, being recorded in the road to Buxton, Bathamgate meaning the road to the (warm) baths.
The first mention of the site as a holy well was by William Worcestre (1969) c.1460:
“makes many miracles, making the infirm healthy, and in winter it is warm, even as honeyed milk.”
When the site was dedicated to St. Anne’s is unclear; in 1461 Buxton was known as Bukston juxta Halywell and even in the sixteenth century they were usually called the Springs or Buxton Wells. However, Cox (1888) in work on Churches mentions that in the reign of Henry VIII offerings were made to St. Anne at the chapel of Buxton, but does not directly state the well was called this. However, it is likely that this chapel was associated with the spring. It was during Henry VIIIth’s reign that under the bidding of Thomas Cromwell the chapel was closed and the saint’s image removed and access to the waters prevented. However, a local family, the Cottrell family appear to have had ownership or indeed influence over the site. In 1542 Roger Cottrell contested a decision that the chapel should be used by the general inhabitants of Buxton, keeping it locked and preventing mass being said there. This would appear to have been a brief period of disuse for in 1572 a Dr. Jones wrote a treatise on The Benefit of the Auncient Bathes of Buckstones, stating that the crutches and other tokens of restored health were hung up on the walls of a public room erected by the Earl of Shrewsbury not far from the baths, suggesting that the chapel by this time had been destroyed. He mentions, also the legend that the image of St. Anne had been miraculously found in the well, and thus given it her name or as he refers to it as the “Cottrels tale or vayne inventions about St Anne found in the well” perhaps suggesting they were keen to re-establish an ancient tradition and used the saint to support it. In 1553 there was a petition against Roger Cottrell for allowing:
“youthful persons to wash and bathe them in the well called Saint Anne’s Well, not only to tipple and drink within the said chapel on the Sundays and holydays, but most irreverently also to pipe, dance, hop and sing….to the great disturbance of the inhabitants of Buxton”.
Whether this was a direct complaint about the Catholic nature of the visits or rather the rowdiness of the parties whichever Roger Cottrell was fined £100 at the Derby assizes. By the 17th century the site had become more established being included on Speed’s map of 1610 and being in 1667 on the northern itinerary of Celia Fiennes. The foundations of the chapel were uncovered in 1698. It is suggested that actual well appears to have remained lined with Roman lead, and surrounded with Roman brick and cement down to the year 1709. Short (1734) states that a Sir Thomas Delves, who after receiving benefit at the spring, had removed this old work and erected over it a stone alcove, or porch twelve foot long and twelve foot broad with stone seats on the inside. In 1836 a six foot stone structure, with sculpture of St Anne and St Mary, was erected by the Duke of Devonshire. Today people still collect the mineral water for free and is dressed, first recorded in the 1840s, discontinued in 1911 but restarted in 1925.
There were a number of springs which developed under the shadow of St. Ann’s however few are formally named (such as a cold bath on the Macclesfield road, said to be of the same temperature as the waters at Matlock). According to Campbell (1774) noted in Burton, (1977) Buxton’s Waters it was a:
“about twenty yards South-East of St. Anne’s, in another close lies Bingham, or St. Peter’s Well..”
This appears to be the earliest reference to Buxton’s lesser known holy well called St. Peter’s well, a site missing from every gazetteer including that by Harte (2008). The origin of its dedication is unclear and its secularised name is better known being Bingham’s or Leigh’s well (SK 058 735). (The later name being based on a person who had a notable cure from its waters.) This saint’s dedication suggests an early site, but if this is so it is surprising that no other authors refer to it. It was lined with white marble, and the temperature of the hot baths from it, was most accurately adjusted by an ingenious contrivance for the introduction of cold and hot water. When all this was lost is unclear. The well’s site is now marked by manhole cover in the road east of the crescent.
There was also a chalybeate spring on the North side of the river Wye, at the side of the turnpike-road behind the Crescent. Nothing appears to be recorded of its history.
These lesser springs disappeared largely without trace, but the great spring which brought both Romans and Regency, remains today.
Spaw Sunday…a revival of an old May custom
“I can read of Crag Vale, and its once famous Spa,
When as lads in our clogs and our smocks we did go,
When the bright month of May did appear;
With bottles and Spanish, over Heathershelf Scout…
Then we’ve raced down the wood to the mineral spring,
Filled our bottles, and then felt as proud as a king.”
As quoted in Three Lovely Vales, in Biographies, Sketches & Rhymes by the Calder Valley Poets, ed. Sam Mellor Halifax, 1916 May Day or more precisely May Eve was often when the waters of local holy wells and springs were seen as particularly powerful in their properties. A custom linked to this was Spaw Sunday, the first Sunday in May, which was clearly a clever way to both legitimise a ‘pagan’ tradition by placing it on a Sunday and allow people not to miss work! The tradition appears to be a wholly northern custom restricted and mainly Yorkshire and Lancashire. I have found no record of it being undertaken in any counties abutting although similar customs such as sugar cupping occur in Derbyshire and far away in Oxfordshire. In Yorkshire, it now as far as I am aware only undertaken in three locations, two of which is in the Calder Vale and the other at Gunthwaite near Penistone. All the wells often appear to have one thing in common, sulphur waters, as noted in an account in a newspaper describing Gunthwaite Spa:
“Most of the pilgrims brought bottles or cups with them. They ‘supped’ the water, made faces, and filled with their bottles for friends. One old lady, after handing a cope to her daughters, asked what they thought of it. One expressively described the water as muck; and another said it tasted of rotten eggs.”
The smell of sulphur is most notable at perhaps the most famous of the three is that of Cragg Vale, which had a history at least 300 years old. The earliest reference dates from 1789 in Watson’s History of Halifax Parish, and even then the custom was to adorn the wells with boughs and flowers. According to an excellent article in the Northern Earth Journal by John Billingsley the custom is recorded from the late 19th and early 20th century in the Hebden Bridge Times. In particular he notes an account which recorded that 500 visited on May 6, 1906 and went to hear the Hebden Bridge Band playing at the White House Inn a few miles away. In the Telegraph and Argus of 7th May 1909 there was the following report on Spa Sunday:
“’Spa’ Sunday, specially favoured in point of weather, was as popular as ever on the hills surrounding the town. The Hebden Bridge Brass Band were out early, and discoursed music on the Erringden hillside. Blackstone Edge and Cragg Vale were as usual visited by hundreds of people.”
Sam Hellowell’s History of Cragg Vale (1959) records in 1913:
“It being a nice day the crowd during the afternoon was a very large one, being many hundreds in excess of last year’s and the scene was of an animated character. Testing the pungent water was much more generally observed than formerly. The scene, however, contrasted very favourably compared with the very rough and rowdy conduct of generations gone by. The local branch of the Independent Labour Party was represented with speakers. The Hebden Bridge Brass Band was also present, as was the Steep Lane Mission Band.”
The Cragg Vale Spaw Sunday died out in the 1940s probably during the War. A revival in 1987 was short lived. In the book, Martyrs, maypoles and Mayhem Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan (1994) report:
“the celebrations were revived briefly in 1987, and the well in Cragg Vale near Hebden Bridge was decorated with flowers and branches. Several Morris teams turned up, everyone took a gulp of the liquorice infused water, and a great time was had by all. In 1988 however, the first Sunday in May suffered appalling weather: the booked Morris teams cried off, and the tradition was dead before the morning was out. It remained dormant ever since.”
Consequently, the Spa spring itself became effectively lost falling like many sites in ruin and becoming forgotten out of site and mind. This was until 2009 when the site was cleared, cleaned and new steps provided with a landscaped surrounding. Then on the first May in Sunday, 1st May 2010, it was again revived. Fortunately, nothing appears to have affected the custom since its revival in 2011. The present revival consists of a procession to the spring from presently the Hinchcliffe Arms Inn with the Rippondale sword dancers and resident clergy. The spa is then blessed and water sprinkled and drunk with liquorice and cakes served.
At the same time a revival of Spaw Sunday has occurred in Midgley, the other side of Mytholmroyd. The origins of this custom is unclear, one of the organisers suggested an observance of it occurred in the 1970s and possibly 80s, but they were unaware whether this was a survival or revival. This custom consists of the dressing of the well and springheads of the small hamlet with banners and a wide range of flowers, objects and artwork. In the morning there was a perambulation around there were poems and recitations are consisted. At the end the assembled mass visit the community centre to partake in local delicacy dock pudding is served.
Also in the Calder Valley was Luddenham Dean Spa. This became a very popular event attracting brass bands, the temperance society, preachers and the speeches from the Independent Labour Party, it appeared to have declined at the second world war. Another well, was at Horley Green, Halifax, which according to Heginbottom (1988) in an article called Early Christian Sites in Calderdale, in Halifax Antiquarian Society Transactions notes that thousands people would visit it in the mid-19th century. The other side of the valley at Haworth, local people from that town, Oxenhope, Stanbury and other locales attended near Leeshaw Reservoir where a Spa Beak. According to a work by Martha Heaton’s (2006) quoted by Paul Bennett on Northern Antiquarian, the day consisted of:
“..sitting round the well, they sang songs, some bringing their musical instruments to accompany the singing. Children brought bottles with hard spanish in the bottom filling the bottle with water from the well, shaking it until all the spanish or liquorice had been dissolved. This mixture was known as ‘Poppa Lol’ and would be kept for weeks after a little sugar had been added, then it was used sparingly as medicine. The custom seems to have died out when Bradford Corporation took over the water and made Leeshaw Compensation Reservoir in 1875….It was a great day for many people, the Keighley News of May 1867 mentioned it, the report of local news reads thus: ‘A large assembly met on Spa Sunday on the moors about two miles from Haworth, and a party of musicians from Denholme performed sacred music.”
As far as I can ascertain, the furthest north Spaw Sunday site, but called Spo Sunday, was that of that of Spo well near Rochdale, Lancashire according to Taylor (2005) was also drunk with liquorice and shaken. Although, according Rowling (1976) in her Folklore of Lake District, the custom was undertaken during the first Sunday of May but appears never to have been called Spaw Sunday, being called ‘Shaking Bottle Sunday’ this may be due to the distribution of the term spa as term. Rowling records that liquorice was drunk with the water at Tolly or Keld Well, Greystoke up and until 1903. It was undertaken until the First World War, with water at Eden Lady Caves, near Great Salkeld. Indeed, a song was sung ‘The first is may is shaking day’ was sung with games undertaken on the day. Other ‘Shaking Sundays were on other days in May or Palm Sunday. It appears that the name Spaw or Spa Sunday was largely restricted to Yorkshire’s west Riding. The oldest surviving event is that of Gunthwaite in Yorkshire in the Pennines. Here the main part of the event is the attendance of the Thurstone Brass Band, who has played since the 1970s at the event. A newspaper report from 1904 recorded by Rob Wilson (1990) in his Holy Wells and Spas of South Yorkshire notes:
“It has a spring of water in which people of the district have wonderful faith. They look upon it as a sort of cure-all. But if you are to be cured you must drink of the waters on one special day in the year-the first Sunday in May. On other days the spring is just water. But on the first Sunday in May it becomes miraculously charged with all kinds of powers and properties, and people flock to it from far and near. The spa consisted of a little recess in a wall came a common rusty iron pipe, out of which the mysterious fluid was gently trickling. Below the pipe the little pool, in which pilgrims had to stand and stoop to get the precious First-of-May flavour, was muddy and objectionable looking. There was nothing tempting about the appearance of the place. But the worse the look, possibly the better the result. The cup, provided by a thoughtful Rural District Council, was chained to the wall, but was all battered and worn, dirty and shorn of everything that makes a drinking vessel attractive. All the pilgrims except myself, seemed to know the cup, and came prepared with drinking vessels of their own..the wall and pipe had not been there long. Formerly the water was obtained from the spring as it came out of the ground by the little stream among the rushes and rough undergrowth bordering the road. But the first of May water got mixed with the other water in the stream and lost its value. So it had been piped to the wall. An old gentleman did not approve of such radical changes; and did not think the water so good now that it came through a pipe as it was formerly.”
The account suggests that the attendees could get rowdy, returning to his old gentlemen the author writes:
“Then his mind carried him back long years to the time when there used to be great rejoicing on the first Sunday of May. ‘There used to be a band out here, and brave going-on, sure enough’ said the old gentleman, with a faraway look, as though he could see before him the crowd and dancing and the revels that disturbed the quietude of Gunthwaite Spa on the first Sunday in May years ago. The band was done away with a good many years ago, he said regrettably, because the people began to get too rowdy…
The spectre of alcohol, the opposite of the temperance movement’s stance at Cragg, was raised:
“Some of the young men however gulped the water down in big quantities. But they highly diluted it. They had come out armed with flasks of spirit, and horns, in which they mixed whisky and water. The two together seemed to make a highly attractive beverage; but such proceeding spoilt the charm of the mystery of the place. They degraded the water to a very commonplace level. Having partaken of the water, people sat about the banks to watch the other tasters, and to enjoy the faces they made. I was assured that some people were at the water early in the morning; long before breakfast.”
Rob Wilson (1990), notes that the band had returned and ‘little had changed in the 90 years or so since the account was written’. Today, the band plays from 2 onwards at the reservoir whilst refreshments of another kind, cakes, are available nearby. Hopefully these surviving traditions will continue and blossom and others will be resurrected.
An account of Spaw Sunday 2013 posted on traditionalcustomsandceremonies.wordpress.com at the end of the month.
Many thanks to John Billingsley of Northern Earth for his help and the warm welcome of the people of Cragg Vale and Midgley and http://megalithix.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/haworth-moor-spas