Category Archives: Well hunting

Rediscovered! The Sister’s Well, Hoton, Leicestershire

Leicestershire is sadly not renowned for its holy and healing wells, this is despite two works, Bob Trubshaw’s seminal 1990 Holy Wells of Leicestershire and Rutland and James Rattue’s 1993 work on An Inventory of Ancient, Holy and Healing Wells in Leicestershire in LAHS. The majority of wells in the former are either lost or dubious wells, i.e not necessarily holy! One curious exception was the Sister’s Well at Hoton or Prestwold. Trubshaw (1990) records:

“Sisters’ Well (also known as Jacob’s Well) is on the perimeter of the disused airfield. A simple stone structure with steps down and wooden doors stood until World War II but the flow has now been culverted.”

Structurally this sounded like one of the more structure of the county’s holy wells and its loss was a considerable one. Another reason why this site was of interest is due to a local legend:

“A legend associated with this well tells how, during a three-month long drought, a sixteenth century maiden lady called Gertrude Lacey dreamed three times in one night of finding a stream by sticking a pilgrim’s staff from the Holy Land in a specific place. It was located in Langdale Field, and known as Spring Close after Enclosure. A pilgrim’s staff was dug up and, with the help of her sister Grace, she went off to the location. When the staff was stuck in the ground a supply of water was created which ‘has never run dry’. A double effigy in Prestwold church reputedly depicts these two sisters.

It is a common holy well origin motif and is found across the country and even overseas. However, rarely is it associated with secular figures which either emphasises the importance of the sisters or is a story transferred from a lost saint tradition. An interesting well who I thought only remembrance was the farm across from its location Shepherd’s Well farm.

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It seemed clear that this was a lost site and then searching on the web for references to well in preparation of my Leicestershire holy wells I was amazed to come across this from Bob Trubshaw:

“In March 2015 the ‘solar farm’ on Wymeswold airfield was being extended. I received an email from Alexander Haddington to say that a friend of his had noticed that an old well had been uncovered to the north of the perimeter track. He thought the photographs his friend had taken ‘would be of interest’. ‘Yes, very much so!’ was the gist of my reply.”

I was similarly very keen to examine the site and photograph it for the book. I contacted the owners of the Solar farm and via a series of emails was welcomed to the site.

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The landscape is perhaps the strangest to find a holy well. In a sea of solar cells, panels which spread across the relics of the airbase like a waves on the sea, enclosed in a wooden fence is the well. We removed a cone and some coverings and I peered inside.

The first thing that could be noticed was a series of steps into some deep murky water. The steps nearly reached the top of the concrete lid suggesting there may have been one on which the current covering rested on. The water arose from under an arch which was a right angles to the step and peering in there old stone work could be seen. .

The arch was a strong stone one upon which could be read slightly in the light ‘HL 1851’, did this refer to the Holy Land as the legend suggested? In the article for the Wold’s Historian, a Joan Shaw did some research for Bob Trubshaw and noted:

“The date and initials intrigued us and I was looking through the 1851 census last night to try and identify HL. As soon as I found the name Henry Lacey I was fairly satisfied that it was the Lacey family who had either found the well or, assuming it is older, had built the approach to it.

We looked at a map of the estate, the field appears to belong to the Packe Estate (or did) but the Lacey family owned land close by so it would be likely that they rented it and had perhaps rented it for many generations.”

 

DSC_0221The name Lacey being that of the two sisters showing that the family were keen to continue their beneficence. Either side of the arch was a piece of metal sticking out of the brickwork, which would appear to have been placed there to attach a metal or wooden set of doors on their as can be seen currently on a number of wells as shown below. Perhaps this would prevent the water being contaminated. These doors of course would not prevent it today as the water table has risen here compared to other places.

The site is remarkably well preserved and the landowners are keen to preserve it. I suggested that the whole concrete roof could be fully removed to allow a complete restoration and this may happen in the future. Whatever happens it is great to see this most interesting of Leicestershire holy wells being restored and rising from the ground like the origin spring – it holds out hope for similar rediscoveries perhaps.

Searching for St Audry’s Well on the Isle of Ely

The best recorded holy well in the Cambridgeshire is that of St. Audry’s Well (TL 540 801). It is noted in the 12th century that a spring arose at the place where the saint was first buried

Renowned saint

St Audry or rather Ethelreda or Æthelthryth was an Anglo Saxon saint who was a 7th century East Anglian princess, one of four saintly daughters of Anna, queen of Northumbria and Abbess of Ely. Interestingly she was born at Exning in Suffolk where a well is also associated with her. She died and was buried at Ely and it is recorded by Bede that when her body was disinterred her body was uncorrupt as such her powers and clothes were said to have special powers. She was reburied in the Cathedral and her shrine remained until the reformation. She is best known for the term tawdry for rubbish,  a term which derived from the poor quality clothing sold at fairs on her feast days.

Curative waters

In the 12th century it is reported that:

“If any sick people take a drink from this spring, or have been sprinkled with its water, it is reported that they subsequently recover their original vigour…. in account of her merits, are acquainted with remedies and assiduous in curing the sick”.

Miraculous waters

It is noted that the monks made the spring site into a pit like cistern so that they could collect some of their water.  Several miracles are associated with the well. One tells how a blind woman washing her face and eyes became able to see, how a man travelled from Northamptonshire to be healed and found the door locked. He was apparently barred entrance and was told that there was no bucket at the well and nothing to collect it with. He did not take no as an answer and so barged his way in where he found the well overflowing into the courtyard and thus cupped some water into his hands. He evoked the saint’s name and as he did so begin to recover. Another story tells how a woman fell into the well after accidently being pushed in by a crowd at the well. She was apparently left in the water for two hours and was found still alive by the monks.

Secretive waters

The established site of the well is at Barton Farm to the east of the Cathedral. The site is shown on a Moore’s map of the fens dated in 1684 shown as St. Aldreth’s Well.  According to Hippisley-Coxe in his 1973 Haunted Britain this site still survived as a muddy pool in a clump of elms near Barton Farm.  The spring fills a small tree lined pool on the edge of the grounds of Ely’s Cathedral School, which has absorbed Barton Farm, and the Golf course. There does not appear to be any evidence of fabric but at some point, some brickwork has been used to create a channel to allow the water to flow way showing that the spring is still active.

Conversely the metrical Life and Miracles of St Æthelthryth by Gregory of Ely, c.1120 states that ‘the holy precinct of the church includes a spring’, but does not identify this as a holy well; the original grave of St Audrey lay:

“somewhere in the vicinity of the former Bishop’s Palace, the area close to the Fountain Inn, and the present St Mary’s Church, where the water-table is high.”

This was where:

“…where the people of the neighbourhood do now resort to drink the waters of it, it being a sort of mineral water”.

This suggests two things, one that it was an arrangement like current St. Withburga’s well at East Dereham and that it was nearer the Cathedral. Indeed I was shown by Mr Hart of Ely School a possible alternative site, a small duck pond in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace. This however although might be a more likely sight indeed it lay across from the school’s old chapel and in the shadow of the Bishop’s Palace.

 

Details in Holy Wells and healing springs of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of the Ely.

A forgotten Bedfordshire holy well – the Holiwell at Odell

One of the great things about holy well research is finding a site recorded in an old work, doing field work to find it – and then finding it!

I recently discovered a copy of Bygone water supplies, by J. Steele Elliott which I previously thought was an article and not a book. I had a photocopy of this but this was only of the text once I had opened the work I discovered that at the back of the work it was copiously illustrated with sepia photos of which a large number were of holy and healing wells. Which was a surprise and a useful tool for field work. How many still existed and how many if they survived looked the same?

Bedfordshire is a little covered county in holy and healing well research and Steele Elliot’s work is the only one to have covered the subject at all. Hope includes a number of sites, although one of these is actually in Huntingdonshire!

What is curious is the fact that the site is unrecorded beyond Steele Elliot’s work. There maybe two reasons for this one being the relative obscurity of the text, indeed although the Bord’s reference it in their Sacred Waters, this may be a second-hand reference.  The site is absent from Jeremy Harte’s magnus opus on holy wells English Holy Wells a sourcebook

It is not that the site is recorded. An early record is in Oliver St.John Cooper’s Historical Account of Odell of 1787:

“Here is a great plenty of useful stone; lately discovered gravel; and several good springs, two of which have been reputed medicinal. One on the north-east, whose water has not been analyzed, yet well known to be mildly cathartic. That on the north-west has been so celebrated as to obtain the name of Holliwell for itself and two closes, through which it runs into the town”.

It is again mentioned in 1872-8 by William Marsh Harvey in his Hundred of Wiley. Eric Rayner’s Odell, the Hill of Woad from the ‘Bedfordshire Magazine’ in 1970 notes:

“Some of Odell’s water springs were reputed to have medicinal qualities; certainly one on the north-east was well known to be mildly purgative and one, which obtained the name of Holliwell, after supplying village Farm, used to flow into a trough by the roadside for the use of villagers.”

Yet despite these noted, no researchers appears to have looked into the survival or history of the site.

Looking for evidence

The first clue is that the spring is recorded on the north-east. Looking at the early OS maps failed to identify any well named holy, holliwell, holiwell or haliwell, but a spring was marked approximately to the north east on the old maps. Checking the modern map the well was still there and interestingly a footpath crossed close enough to access. Elliott Steele (1933) records that it lay between Village Farm and Great Wood, in significantly called Waterhouse Field, Grass Holiwell and Ploughed Holiwell fields adjoined it.

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From Bygone water supplies, by J. Steele Elliott.  BHRS and the Public Museum, Luton, 1933.  36p. 54 plates. Survey of Ancient Buildings, vol. 2 Copyright BHRS

The photo shows a substantial stone structure but the clue to the locating the holy well and confirming the site was a large tree in the background. If that was still there that would help confirm that the spring and holliwell were the same.

Travelling across the footpath the tree was evident and a tree lined gully was apparent to the right. Interesting the field was being seeded with grass  was this Grass Holiwell field? Could this be where the holy well was?

A substantial structure

Carefully veering off the footpath, apologies to the landowner but I was careful not to damage any emerging crops, it was evident that some sort of structure was present albeit overgrown. Going around and climbing down into the gully I was confronted by the structure shown in Elliot’s 1933 photo (I presume this when it was taken but the photos date from 1870 till this date). Much of it unchanged bar the lintel over the door had gone and the stones just above it. Peering inside it is clear that this was a well-built substantial structure. The water arose clear and of considerable depth in a square chamber it flowing from a shute at the bottom. At the bottom could be seen the remains of the lintel and the other stones.

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The most curious feature was the arched niche at the back. What was this for? If it was to place buckets on it appeared too narrow and inconveniently placed as one would have to reach over some deep water to get to it. Its ornateness suggests it may have been built to hold religious objects but if so it would make it unique in the county and indeed these are rare features outside well known holy wells such as those in Cornwall.

Was this once then a significant site?

What was it dedicated to? The church gives no clues it’s to All Saints but there was an earlier church as the town was recorded as a Minster in 1220. As James Rattue records in his 1999 The Living Stream there is a strong correlation between Minster towns and holy wells. This would be more supporting evidence. The settlement itself has a considerable history having Roman, Danish and Saxon histories perhaps attracted to the copious supply on this spring. Odell was an important settlement post the Norman conquest and remains of a castle exist. It is possible that the well was constructed by the castle as their supply although there is a substantial well on the site called King John’s well. Of course the name could easily derive from Old English hol meaning ‘hollow’ but the versions of holli and halli suggest it is a genuine holy well.

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It is good to see the well survives but clearly it needs some TLC, perhaps a local history group could raise funds. Now the Holliwell has been ‘rediscovered’ perhaps it could be preserved.

Time to save St. Edith’s Well, Church Eaton, Staffordshire?

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Search Staffordshire Past website and the photo below can be found St. Edith’s Well. The picture shows something which composes of a well chamber enclosed in a wicker fence having a thatched rectangular roof placed upon it. This structure was supposedly designed and built in the 1950s and indeed field investigators for the Department of Environment in 1958 noted:

“St Edith’s Well is a rectangular water-filled stone basin, 2.1 m by 1.5 m, apparently recently restored; a flight of steps descends into the water. It is covered by a modern openwork timber structure with a thatched roof. Coins are still thrown into this well and several were seen on the bottom.”                               

Tim Cockin in his 1992 article One country man to another in The Countryman records that the well house was built and thatched by a Tommy Brayne, the landlord of the village pub, in about 1950, with the encouragement of the people at the manor house. Today this is not the case. The site is well-known enough to find a place in Janet and Colin Bord’s seminal 1985 work Sacred Waters where they record:

“As it is on private land, permission to visit it should be sort by the nearby farm. The rectangular stone basin is covered by a thatched timber structure. The well was visited for eye problems and the King’s Evil, and visitors still throw coins into the water.”

Armed with this book during a visit in the 1990s, I did indeed visit the nearby farm and was greeted by a ‘why would you want to visit that then’ response. However, I was granted access and directed across the fields. Nearby farm was clearly in relative terms! Despite the author’s note what I found was a well in a very sorry state.

Much of the superstructure from the photo had gone. Sadly, it was a rather dilapidated well structure, consisting of what was clearly, although I probably didn’t realise at the time, that fallen wooden structure laying over a brick-lined rectangular pool where steps into the structure could just be traced. It was still there but was not perhaps as spectacular as I expected.

Local traditions

The well is first mentioned in 1696 by Francis Plot in his History of Staffordshire he notes:

“many other waters…performe unaccountable Cures…the water of… St Ediths well… in the parish of Church Eyton.”

The well has some curious local traditions. One stating that the waters did not cause rusting. One I had not heard of before and possible being unique. As stated by the Bords it was good for eyes and the Kings Evil. The Victorian County History records a local legend notes that near this well was the site originally chosen for the church but that, but the stones brought there by mule-back by day were removed to the present site by night. This parish church was dedicated to St Edith by the nuns of Polesworth Abbey after it had been granted to them in about 1170, although whether this because a local St. Edith, rather than that associated with Kemsing Kent, or not is unclear. Interestingly according to  Cockin  (1992) records that the Bishop of Chester visited the well to bless it, and its water was used for baptisms by the family at the manor house.

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Save St Edith’s Spring

The problem being clearly as I found in the 1990s this is not the best positioned holy well. In the middle of a field, several fields in from the road with no clear route to it and no holy well. I can more than understand the farmer not wanting hoards of curious onlookers crossing fields to have a look. However, that does not explain or justify the deplorable state of the well. According to Tim Prevett on Megalithic portal it has been allowed to fall derelict since the late 1980s despite pleas from the local Parish council and the site is slowly perhaps being forgotten. He states:

“Speaking to the church warden and flower arranger at St Edith’s they said the well had been largely been forgotten by the village, and were unsure in what condition it would be found. Also, permission needs to be gained to visit, I think from a bungalow just next to the canal side nearest the well, having left Church Eaton”

Speed forward another 20 years or so I have learnt things have not improved. The local concerns were sadly true; thanks to some locals I was provided with the opportunity of an update, although I note it is away from footpaths and on private land so I am not recommending you trespass. Much of the wood has been cleared, although some sections remain, but it is long beyond repair. The well chamber is still full of water, albeit sluggish and algae covered. Steps could be seen however. We must be thankful that its fabric remains but surely some compromise can be reached to save this notable Staffordshire well.

For more information on Staffordshire’s holy wells look out for

Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Staffordshire – forthcoming

On the pilgrim’s route – the Leper’s or Black Prince’s Well, Harbledown, Kent

Black Prince's Well copyright-jim-barton-and-licensed-for-reuse-under-this-creative-commons-licence

Black Prince’s Well copyright-jim-barton-and-licensed-for-reuse-under-this-creative-commons-licence

One of the first holy wells that I discovered in my first forays into the subject was the variously named site which hides itself beneath the old leper hospital at Harbledown. Having my appetite whetted by journeys in the west country I was eager to find similarly romantic sites in the east and the well did not disappoint.

Like many sites in those days I had read of it bit not seen a picture, so I was very pleased to see the spring emerging at the foot of the hill enclosed in a six foot high semicircular domed well head made from Kentish rag stone and surrounded by brightly coloured flowers.

The well was noted as being able to cure leprous ailments, and presumably this is why the leper hospital was built in 1084 by Archbishop Lanfranc to exploit its properties, although this is not recorded. Why the Black Prince? It is the only well associated with the would-be monarch and joins a select group of well connected with royalty which have ‘religious’ and healing connotations.

The reason by for it is said that amongst its many early pilgrims looking for a cure for this complaint was Edward the Black Prince, who patronised the well twice: the first on his last journey to Canterbury, when he was cured, and then finally, on his death bed in 1376. Unfortunately in this latter case the waters were obviously of no use, being unable to rid him of his syphilis, of which he died. The well subsequently named after the knight.

It would appear previously and not unsurprisingly it had been named after nearby Canterbury’s holi blissful martyr Thomas Becket. For Canterbury pilgrims, it was their first view of the great Cathedral and so it have become a significant watering hole before they made the last steps to that great Shrine of St. Thomas. According to Francis Watt (1917) in Canterbury Pilgrims and their ways this was the seventh St. Thomas’s Watering at Harbledown – one of a whole list stretching the Pilgrim’s way. It still bears the alternative name of St. Thomas’s Well, a dedication unlike other sites would seem to be related to be a direct relationship, for it is recorded that he drunk from the well, accidentally leaving a shoe. Understandably, after the martyrdom, this became an important relic, and was held by the Hospital. It is also from this well that Henry II being responsibly for Becket’s murder walked barefoot into Canterbury where he was flogged by all the bishops as part of his penance.  He also Henry II established an annual 40 marks grant to the leper hospital which apparently is still paid by the City Treasury today apparently.

For those unable to drink straight from the well, water was often administered to those living far from it. Evidence for this being the discovery of a leather pouch found near the well. Indeed, even the early part of this century the water was still used, especially by those from afar, for H. Snowdon Ward (1904) Tales of Canterbury Pilgrimages remarks that:

“the water is still in some repute for its curative powers. The sub-prior of the hospital told us that he still occasionally receives small remittances from various parts of the continent…”

Julian Mary Cartwright (1911) The Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury illustrates that its local reputation was still current before the Great War. He records that it was:

‘still believed by Country folks to be of great benefit to the eyes.’

Most interesting a carved stone, in its central apse, depicts the Black Prince’s coat of arms, three feathers taken from the King of Bohemia at Crecy. This stone appears to have been possibly derived from another structure rather than being carved especially for the well head, as do the fluted stones shown in earlier photos (cf Goodsall (1968) in his Kentish Patchwork), which are now apparently missing. An 1836 woodcut shows a circular basin above the lower step and a venerable old tree growing from its roof.

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Either side of the well head are two courses of rag stone walling. The well is reached by a series of stone steps between two courses of stone walling. The water emerges, as a small trickle, through a five inch diameter red clay pipe, flowing to fill a circular basin. Often it is dry. Yet it is c

ertainly the well is one of the most interesting and enchanting of Kent wells.

(taken from the Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent)

Directions: The Black Prince’s Well is found to the right of a path that curves around past the Leper Hospital / almshouses, and through the forecourt of a house.

Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Fynnon Sara, Derwen

Possibly one of the easiest of North Wales’s holy wells located a few feet from the roadside down a cobbled path, all part of the local vicar’s attempt to landscape and preserve the site in the 1970s. A plaque on the wall tells us it is Ffynnon Sara. The well itself consists of a large stone lined bath like structure, 4.5 by 2.3 metres and fills to around a metre depth although when I visited it appeared only a few centimetres in depth, the water being reached by four steps in one corner.

Fynnon Sarah and Janet Bord (14)

Considerable cure

The well was once firmly on the pilgrim’s trail from Holywell to St Davids being marked on maps until the 17th century. A cottage was located nearby and may have been used by visitors. Peering into the duckweed covered sluggish water it is difficult to see how these waters had thought to have a wide range of powers. Amongst the usual claims of eczema and rheumatism, cancer was said to be cured here. Patients would bathe in the well and leave pins! Presumably those who bathed afterwards would be aware of this. Crutches were said to have been left in the cottage which existed on the site, said to have been lost in the 1860s. Now a sign proclaims unfit to drink!

Who’s well is it?

There has been some confusion over the origin of the name. Whilst the name could easily derive from the owner of the nearby lost cottage, possibly a family name, others have sought to associated with a saint. St Saeran, a sixth century saint has been suggested. He established a monastic settlement at Llanynys, eight or so miles from the site. However, there is no reason why they should be the original dedication. Indeed in the 17th century it was called Fynnon Pyllau Perl – pearl ponds – perhaps after pearl producing mussels in the water.

Strange coincidence

Upon visiting the well I was greeted with a delightful encounter. Peering into those murky waters was a lady who unbeknownst to her got me interested into holy wells in the first place. It was author Janet Bord. With her was fellow enthusiast, Tristan Grey Hulse (founder of the Source new series, author and St Winifred Wells companion) and a number of others. They had simply stopped there to have a quick look and were actually only visiting churches. I suppose after visiting so many wells it was bound to happen but it was a fitting finish to my North Wales Holy well pilgrimage.

Fynnon Sarah and Janet Bord (2)

In search of the Ladywell of Oakham

Our Lady’s Well which in on the north side of Burley Road, Oakham, about a quarter of a mile east of the Odd House Inn. Rev Thomas Cox’s New Survey of Great Britain (1720-31) states:

“In ancient Times, before the Reformation, there was a Custom among the devout People of this Nation, and especially of these Parts, to go on Pilgrimage in Honour of the blessed Virgin Mary, to a Spring in this Parish, about a Quarter of a Mile from the Town, which is still known by the Name of our Lady’s Well, near which we may perceive in several Places the Foundations of an House or two remaining; but that which will confirm our Belief of such an Usage, is a Record found in the First fruits Office, containing, among other Things these Words, That very many Profits and Advantages belonging and appertaining to the Vicarage of Okeham did consist in divers Obventions and Pilgrimages to the Image of the Virgin Mary at the Well, and St. Michael the Archangel, and diverse other Rites and Oblations, which now are quite abolished, with the Benefits and Advantages which accrued there-from to the Vicar.”

As suggested above in the mid-1200-1300s, indulgences could be obtained by visiting it and the church during its patronal festival. By 1565/6, Jones (2007) states compensation was confirmed for the loss of:

 “various offerings and pilgrimages [including] the late image of Blessed Mary at the spring.”

The site is recorded as Ladies Well in 1632, the Lady’s Well, 1691 and then Lady Well in 1801, becoming Our Lady’s Well in the 1885 OS map. The spring’s water was said to be good for sore eyes, only as Palmer (1985) notes:

It was still renowned for healing powers in the Victorian era, and its water was applied to the eyes for soreness, provided that a pin had first been thrown into the well”

The site was even visited according to Matthews (1978) by Princess (later Queen) Alexander in 1881 when she stayed at Normanton Park. Now a boggy hole surrounded by modern housing in a nature reserve managed by Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.

Cox (1994) notes the field name Helwelle in 1498. The site may be another name for the above site. The first part of the name suggesting it derived from hæl meaning ‘omen’ or hælu meaning ‘health.

Alternatively, it may be another name for Chriswell, a lost site on the opposite side of Burley Road to Our Lady’s Well. Its name may derive from Christ. Whatever its origins, it was said to have been used by a Belgian refugee in the First World War to cure his sick cow. It appears to have been a holy well as apparently the church collected money from the well.

Lost in the undergrowth

 

All that remains of Our Lady’s Well

 

Sadly Oakham’s Lady Well is a far cry from its former self. Enclosed in dense and impenetrable undergrowth; brambles, nettles and briars, meaning that the source cannot be reached without considerable effort and pain. However, through the help of a local who was able to give an easier route to the well, I managed to reach it in a private garden. However unfortunately although the spring still flows the source is a boggy morass.  Considering its fame one would imagine that the well head may retain some form of infrastructure, but nothing remains, bar some iron staining. Enclosed in a 1990s housing estate and largely forgotten, unfortunately there is little to excite even the most ardent holy well researcher!

 

Our Lady’s Well is in there!

 

Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Guest Blog post St Gwenfaen’s Well, Anglesey by Ian Taylor of wellhopper.wordpress.com

This month I celebrate 5 years blogging about holy wells and healing springs. So this month to celebrate…I am having a break (!) all the posts this month are guest blogs

Our first guest blog is from a fellow Holy Well Blogger – Ian Taylor with his excellent exploration of holy wells of North Wales. This month he offers a guide to a lesser well known well on the island of Anglesey.

This is coast-trod, the end of known territory. A chance to lift feet but not land them in the place intended. Squall forces eyes back against their brain-lock. The wind whinnies and runs off, dragging trees forward, bounding over gorse. Four choughs chase a peregrine – stiff meet and St Gwenfaen’s church holds a flat palm shape to the wind a warning

Holy Island, Ynys Cybi, lies at the north western corner of Anglesey, separated from the main island by a narrow strait crossed by two bridges. Its name refers back to the religious settlement founded here in the sixth century by St Cybi, the town of Holyhead too still bears his name in its Welsh form, Caergybi.

This was journey’s end for Cybi. A life spent wandering following a pilgrimage to Jerusalem which finally saw him settling on the Llyn peninsula, where he is remembered in the old parish name of Llangybi, the site of a popular well that also bears his name; before being given land by King Maelgwn Gwynedd here on Anglesey where he established his great monastery.

St Peulan features in most medieval accounts of the life of St Cybi, being identified as one of the ten disciples who followed Cybi from his original home in Cornwall, through South Wales and into Ireland before finally arriving in North Wales, a medieval manuscript identifies him as one of the twelve “sailors” who formed Cybi’s family.

It is through Peulan that the story of Gwenfaen as a saint enters the record. A late version of the Bonedd y Saint (ref. Bartrum) identifies Paul Hen from Mannaw, the place name suggesting that he was from the Strathclyde area of Scotland, as being the father of two sons Peulan and Gwyngenau and of a daughter Gwenfaen who were all amongst those who followed Cybi to Anglesey. Although Peulan is identified as one of Cybi’s primary companions, Gwyngenau and Gwenfaen appear more as bit players in the story, suggesting later additions. It is probably noteworthy however that, in addition to Gwenfaen, each of these sons too have had churches dedicated to them and named communities on Holy Island at Llanbeulan and the, now extinct, Capel Gwyngenau.

The implied connection between the three is strengthened by the dates recorded for their feast days. Cybi’s is celebrated on November 5th, Peulan on November 1st or 2nd and Gwenfaen on November 4th or 5th. Although any festival date for Gwyngeneu is not known.

Gwenfaen benefits from a much more colourful legend than her brothers.. It would appear that it is initially a localised, possibly later story, since it isn’t picked up by the lives of the saints stories. We are told that her cell was attacked; some accounts tell us by Druids, others by Vikings, neither would be possible at the time Gwenfaen lived. She fled to the sea, jumped from the cliffs, climbing onto a natural stone column. As the sea rose around her she was in danger of drowning until two angels descended and carried her up to heaven.

The female Welsh saints appear regularly to have led perilous lives; in many cases their sanctity being derived from their ability to preserve their honour against all odds. However the story may retain some memory of the Viking raids of the 9th and 10th centuries, which had a devastating effect on religious and secular communities on Anglesey.

Rhoscolyn, a small scattered community, is towards the southern end of Holy Island close to the air force base at Valley. It centres on its church which is dedicated to St Gwenfaen, a late Victorian reconstruction on the site of an earlier church, destroyed by fire,. The community previously carried her name, having been known as Llanwenfaen, although for several centuries now it has been Rhoscolyn, the column on the moor, in reference to a large Roman stone in the area.

Gwenfaen’s well (Ffynnon Wenfaen) lies on the cliff tops some 1000 yards to the south east of the church. To find it one follows the path running just to to the east of the church towards the coast between several scattered houses, predominantly holiday lets today,  as far as the lookout station, and then turning to the right and following the cliff path downwards.

The well is set in a hollow in the landscape and very easily missed even when following the path which runs close by. It is however a complex dry stone built structure in three separate parts. Steps lead down to a smallish paved antechamber with four triangular seats set into the corners. Beyond this a second area contains the small oblong bath, which could have been used for bathing. Water flows out from the structure into another stone lined exterior pool, with steps down to the water on two sides, before being channelled away to a pond down the hillside. There is no indication that any of the sections have ever been roofed.

There is a belief that Gwenfaen’s own cell was situated close to the site of the well, although no evidence for this can be seen or has been found. The site of her original church is probably closer to the existing one, as with the later buildings; Angharad Llwyd notes that:

“The burying ground of the original establishment is still distinguishable by the number of bones that are found whenever the spade or plough are used in that spot.”

Cathrall writing a detailed parish by parish history of Wales in 1828 fails to mention the well. He is admittedly very scathing about traditional customs and beliefs, however he does make mention of six other Anglesey wells, suggesting that Gwenfaen’s may have been of less significance at the time. Neither does it merit a mention in Pennant’s Tour of Wales (1810) or Angharad Llwyd’s History of Anglesey (1833), although she appears to draw mainly on the two former authors for much of her information. From this we might assume that while it may have had some local use, it did not feature on the main antiquarian tourist trail in the 19th century.

The charm

Is two quartz stones

And a wish for healing

The well has a reputation for alleviation of depression and for general mental problems. The primary written source for this would appear to be a poem, The Sacred Well of Gwenfaen, Rhoscolyn, written by poet and historian Lewis Morris during the 18th century. His knowledge of the spring and local traditions could not be questioned, he was born on Anglesey and his first wife was from Rhoscolyn.  Baring-Gould and Fisher (1907) refer to the text and imply from it that the well may have been used for divination, a common practice at Anglesey wells, though no indication of the form this took is provided.

I haven’t managed to track down a complete copy of the poem; however the Grufydd’s quote the following short section in their book,

“Full oft have I repaired to drink that spring waters which cure diseases of the soul as well as the body and which always prove the only remedy for want of sense.”

Morris seems to be the earliest written source for the tradition of offering two white or quartz pebbles as an offering to Gwenfaen when seeking a cure. This is widely reported today, and one often finds small collections of white stones within the well. We find quartz pebbles as a not uncommon offering at wells across North Wales. In the early medieval period they were said to be associated with water and healing and are recorded as having been offered well into the eighteenth century. At one of the very few Welsh wells subjected to an archaeological excavation, albeit in the 1930s (St Tegla’s Well, Llandegla, Denbighshire) a layer of white stones was found, suggesting a regular practice at this site. (Edwards, 1994) Although such stones do not feature in what is now the widely known complex ritual supposedly practised at that well for the cure of scrofula.

The offering of white pebbles is also explored by Janet Bord (2006), who notes the practice occurring not only in Wales but also in Ireland and the Isle of Man and suggests that it is almost certainly a custom of some antiquity since similar stones have been found within burial mounds and at very early Christian sites.

There has been a suggestion that the white stones and the dedication might be interlinked. It is possible to translate Gwen faen, (or Gwyn faen) as white stone, thus the well might really be called “white stone well” and the history of St Gwenfaen may have been constructed in response to the name. This is not completely unknown in North Wales. On the other hand the white stones might be left in honour the saint’s name. Either might be possible, though since the name Gwenfaen, does enter the record relatively early I suspect the former is unlikely and, given the more widespread use of white pebbles, the latter may be unnecessary.

In a region where every second spring appeared to offer a ready cure for warts or rheumatism, a well that provided relief for the depressed is certainly different. Morris clearly believed in its restorative powers for the mind, writing

Tis thou and thou alone that I invoke to lead my pen

Then grant me that me that small boon

That wit and gentle sense my glow in every line

In such proportion as I’ve drunk thy waters.

Maybe it does have an impact, or maybe it is just the exhilarating walk along windblown cliff tops, towards the end of known territory, to reach it, but certainly a visit to St Gwenfaen’s well rarely fails to lift the spirits.

Ffynnon Wenfaen, Rhoscolyn, Ynys Mon. SH25947534

 

Extracts from

Clear (for ffynnon Wenfaen) by Suzanne Iuppa. Well Spring, Gwendraeth Press, 2015. (info@thegwendraethpress.com)

The Sacred Well of Gwenfaen, Rhoscolyn by Lewis Morris.

References

Baring-Gould S and J Fisher (1907) The Lives of the British Saints, London

Bartrum. Peter (1993) A Welsh Classical Dictionary. National Library of Wales.

Bord Janet (2006) Cures and Curses. Heart of Albion

Cathrall. William (1828) The History of North Wales

Edwards.Nancy(1994) Holy Wells in Wales and Early Christian Archaeology. Source, New Series Issue 1.

Grufydd. Eirlys and Ken (1999) Ffynhonnau Cymru, Wesg Carreg Gwalch, Llanrwst.

Llwyd, Angharad (1833) A History of the Island of Mona.,Rhuthun.

Pennant. Thomas (1810) A Tour In Wales

 

In search of St Walstan and his holy wells Part three – Bawburgh

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2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.

Who is St. Walstan?

St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.

Three holy wells

In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Already I have tried to locate the first at Taverham’s and found the restored site at Costessey, now the easiest to find – that at the location of the saint’s shrine church, Bawburgh.

This is the third well of the saint in the English Life but the second in his Latin Life. In St Walstan Confessor, de sancto Walstanus confessore notes:

“The bulls went down from that place with the precious body towards the vill of Bawburgh. When they had come almost to the place where the body now lies buried they made another stop in a certain place, where the love of St. Walstan the divine piety made another spring of wonderful power against fevers and many other infirmities, which is still there today.”

The English Life adds:

“ye other ox staled; a well sprang anon next beyond ye parsonage”.

What is interesting is the use of the word, stalled which may be O.E for ‘come to a halt’ or with one l, staled meaning ‘urinated’! The later perhaps recording a more significant role for the white oxen.

The saint’s body was transferred through a special opening made in the north wall of the church and this arch can still be seen, now blocked up. His shrine was then established in the north transept of the Parish church of St Mary the Virgin, since then known as St Mary and St Walstan, as a separate chapel. The saint was canonised by the diocesan Bishop, who visited the site, with a large procession of priests, and hearing of his holiness:

“The bishop gave an ear and hearkened sore, And allowed him a Saint evermore.”

From this point on the well and especially the saint’s shrine was the goal of pilgrims, first from neighbouring villages, and then from Norwich (along Earlham Green Lane), and then after the news of its powers spread across England from farther afield. In particular farmers would bring their sick animals to the well to have them cured. In fact the well and shrine were so popular that a college of priests were established to control and administer the large numbers of pilgrims.

However, although it was apparently the shrine which was the goal, of the eleven medieval miracles associated with the saint, only two are associated with the holy well. One being that of Swanton’s son and the other of Sir Gregory Lovell. In the former, a man called Swanton had a lame son. Together they prayed to God and St Walston and bathed in the water from the Holy Well. The son recovered and ‘now goeth right up and his health hath’.

Nearby lost settlement of Algarsthorpe appears to have been given as a pitanciary to the Monks of Norwich as a result of the other miracle from the holy well. A Sir. Gregory Lovell who was cured of:

“Great sickness and great bone ache by water from St. Walstan’s Well”

According to the English Life of the saint:

“It happened by means of Walstan and God’s grace, To muse in mind upon a night, A mean make to holy Walstan in that case, For water to his well he sent as tyte, Therewith him washed and also dyte, And remedy readily should have anon, by the grace of God and holy Walston.”

Unfortunately as with most shrines the Reformation had a destructive effect, and the shrine was dismantled, its relics scattered over the fields and lost forever. Sadly his shrine lay in the north side of the church and was destroyed in the purges of Henry VIII and his relics burned. The removal of the chapel meant that the north side had no supporting side and hence a buttress had to be placed there!

Yet despite this wanton destruction, it appears St Walstan’s Well continued to be visited, and even through the Commonwealth period, superstitious farmers would visit the well collecting its healing waters for their sick animals. As Twinch (2015) astutely notes:

“The Bawburgh well is an integral part of the later medieval story but it assumed greater importance post-Reformation, after the tomb and chapel was demolished. The emphasis seems then to revert almost to the pre-1016 era of folk lore and water worship”

This has continued until recent years and even in recent times local farmers believe in its livestock curing properties. In 1928 the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological society during an excursion to Bawburgh were told by the Revd Gabriel Young of the story of a local farmer and churchwarden, who had recently died, called Mr. James Sparrow of Church Farm who had a sick mare. The mare was so inflicted with sores that he had to have her put down, at which point a farm boy asked if he could treat her with the well’s water. This is apparently he did and after 10 days of the treatment was cured. The farmer apparently put its powers down to chemical or vegetable substances, rather than miracles, although no chemical analysis has been able to identify these.

This revival in the importance of St Walstan’s Well can be traced back to the 1790s when an anonymous letter on the subject of wells and baths in the September of Gentlemen’s Magazine:

“My business has very lately obliged me to make a tour through this country, at all the market towns and even at every village I stopt at, I was informed of its wonderful efficacy in curing all disorders. The resort to this spring has been very great all this summer. I was assured by a person who was on the spot, that there were frequently 2000 people there at a time, particularly on Sunday mornings; and that the spring was frequently emptied, not so much by the quantity drank on the spot, as what was put into bottles, casks, and barrels, to be transported to the remotest parts of the county.”

As Twinch (1995) notes 2000 people is a lot to assemble around the well, and hence there is doubt in this description. However Husbenbeth (1859) wrote recording around the end of the 18th Century partly collaborating this:

“An old man died not long ago at Babur, who was known to the writer, and in his younger days kept an inn there, which was frequently by crowds of visitors to St Walstan’s Well.”

The Norwich Gazette noted that these crowds often resulted in trouble, and in 1763 it reported that: ‘much confusion ensued …..and many heads were broken in the scuffle.’

Its water was so pure that it was sold in the streets of Norwich. However religious pilgrims only begun to return en masse to the well in the 19th Century. This appeared to be the result of a number of miracles associated with the distribution of its water. The earliest recorded of these involved a Francis Bunn. In 1810 he had joining the militia, but was within five years discharged suffering from ‘incurable ulcers.’ Hearing St Walstan’s well in 1818 after moving to live at Costessey, he walked the three miles to the well to apply the water to his leg. Remarkably his wounds were healed and Husenbeth recorded that they continued to heal up to Bunn’s death in November 1856. The next miracle involved Sister St John Chrysostom, of the Hammersmith Convent. She fell ill in 1838, and was so close to death that the Mother Abbess suggested that she should seek a cure through the moss of St Walstan’s Well. However she disagreed and preferred to put her faith in the healing power of her medallion of the Virgin Mother. Incredibly it is said that as she held this medal to her stomach it was heard to say: ‘drink some water poured from the moss from St Walstan’s Well.’ Taking this as good advice she did so at once, and upon swallowing this moss exclaimed that she was cured!

In 1868, A Revd Benjamin Armstrong noted that one of his five Roman Catholic parishioners had taken some of the moss and:

“applying it to a bad sore overnight, she found it completely healed in the morning, leaving a scar, as from an old wound.”

An account in the Eastern Daily Press of 1913 dubbed it A Norfolk Lourdes and recorded the cure of a London Catholic who had been suffering from eye troubles for some time. It is reported that he saw a number of specialists and was told than the man was likely to loss his sight altogether. The apparently the man remembered the moss he had taken from the well the year before, applied it to his eye using the well’s water. The following day his eye sight was restored. The doctor pronounced him cured. He is said to be determined to join 300 other Catholics from congregations in Norwich, Costessey and Wymondham to give thanks.

In search of St Walstan and his holy wells Part two – Costessey

2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.

St Walstan's Well Costessey (6)

Who is St. Walstan?

St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.

Three holy wells

In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Already I have tried to locate the first at Taverham’s and now I turn to Costessey.

The legend

Before Walstan died he had given instructions to the farmer and his wife, to place his body in a cart, which would be drawn by his own white oxen. With a procession of mourners, a procession started towards Bawburgh, and after crossing the river Wensum at Costessey (where it is said that wheel marks are said to be seen on the riverbed), they stopped and rested his body, and here another healing spring arose, St Walstan’s Well (TG 153 114) in Costessey Park. In St Walstan Confessor de sancto Walstanus confessore Fr Husenbeth in 1859 records:

“Another miracle also happened. When in the aforementioned wood, the bulls stood for a while with the body of St. Walstan on top of a steep hill, a spring of water as a sign of grace for love of St. Walstan appeared against the nature of the place (for until that time no water had been found there) and through divine mercy is still there today.”

Interestingly, the History of St. Walston (sic) an ancient manuscript held at Lambeth Palace and translated by Fr Husenbeth in 1859, fails to mention this second spring. However, it was marked as Walsam’s Well on the 1832 OS map, it is recorded that the well had dried up by the end of the 18th century, after 1750. It was described in 1878 as being:

“beside the Tud is a field called St. Walstan’s Well where as a boy I saw the stones where a spring once came out of the hillside – but the well had dried up”

Jeremy Harte in his 2008 English Holy Wells reported that in the mid-1990s that this site has been destroyed. However, pleasingly this is far from the case. Carol Twinch in her 2015 St Walstan the third search informs us that:

“in 1992, the Bawburgh News editor Betty Matins, visited the site with local historian Ernest Gage, but in spite of a long walk along the river Tud, negotiating barbed wire fences, and a trek along a field edge, they were unable to locate the site.”

However, the author does note that the year after a second attempt in the company of a Robert Akins revealed something. However this was soon under threat from an extension of the Costessey Park Golf course, this is presumably where Harte gets his information from. However, this golf course extension would be the saviour of the site not its nemesis.

St Walstan's Well Costessey (13)

Speaking with Mr. Larry Rowe Costessey Golf Course manager, I was informed that when he purchased the land to extend the golf course, he was informed of the well and its history but doubted its existence. Indeed, there appeared to be some debate on its location, however, in October 2013 as Twinch (2015) notes the precise location was revised by Norfolk County Council based on Ordnance Survey second edition. Mr Rowe and his groundsmen went to the location and tried to find it. They at first were unsuccessful but looking down from a small piece of rising ground they noticed a dip with a silver birch tree in the centre. It was removed and a quantity of loose flints were revealed. It is unclear whether with Mr. Rowe was aware of the earlier discoveries. The well is described as around 12 feet in diameter, with about eight foot sloping walls lined with flints and flints deposited at the bottom.

Twinch (2015) tells us that:

“on 17th January 2015 Costessey had its first sprinkling of snow and on a very cold morning local resident Paul Cooper, Larry Rowe from Costessey Park Limited and Norfolk Archaeologist Garry Grace walked to the spot where almost 1000 years before Walstan’s funeral cortege stopped on its journey from Taverham to Bawburgh.”

According to Rose of Norfolk Archaeological Unit defined it as a deep circular pit with a diameter of 12 feet and a depth of six feet with lumps of flint walling at the bottom. It was identified as being medieval in date and suggested that it once had a passage entering it from one side, which could not now be traced. Despite the concern from local residents it would be destroyed by the golf course, Mr Rowe agreed to preserve it.

St Walstan's Well Costessey (4)

In May 2015 a flint from the well was presented to Father David Ward of Our Lady and St. Walstan Roman Catholic church in the village and this was set into the gable end of the old dinning wall of the 1837 presbytery, predesignated a garden room. Then in April 2017, after a wooden painted sign was erected at the well, made from a door frame of the Catholic Church, it was rededicated and blessed by the said church. The sign states: ‘St Walstan’s Well Holy Well’.

Whilst perhaps not the most visually impacting of the county’s well, but its rediscovery and preservation is great testament to the joint efforts of local people. The well is now protected and preserved. Although dry the flint rows are interesting and fairly unique, interestingly only the well of the Anglican shrine at Walsingham has a similar design emphasising perhaps its Saxon origin. It is good to see this important site preserved and remembered.

Please note St Walstan’s Well is in the far corner of Costessey Park Golf Course and as such inaccessible without permission. I found the owner receptive to my enquiries however and would be best visited in the winter months or during the evening, post six o’clock, when there is less play.

From the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk

For more information on St. Walstan refer to Carol Twinch’s excellent trilogy of works 1995 In Search of St. Walstan, 2011 Saint with the silver shoes and 2015 St Walstan the Third Search

https://traditionalcustomsandceremonies.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/custom-survived-st-walstans-day-pilgrimage-bawburgh-norfolk/