Category Archives: Well hunting
Mark Valentine was the founder and editor of the first or Old Series of Source. He went on to become an editor of over 40 books and writer of ghost or supernatural stories, and an essayist on book-collecting. numerous articles for Book and Magazine Collector, and his essays on book-collecting, minor writers and related subjects have been collected in Haunted By Books (2015) and A Country Still All Mystery (2017). His short stories have been published in a number of collections and in anthologies.
The inspiration for Source was a hand-duplicated A4 magazine called Wood & Water, edited from Swindon by Hilary Llewellyn-Williams and Tony Padfield, and dedicated to ancient springs and groves. I had found a copy on a visit to Glastonbury, along with a clutch of other fascinating publications, including Caerdroia, devoted to turf mazes (and still going), Pendragon, an Arthurian magazine, Sangraal, about the Mysteries of Britain, and a broadsheet Druid journal printed on deep gold-coloured paper.
The only holy wells I knew about before I found W&W were the Chalice Well at Glastonbury, which had a gentle quiet garden, and St Anne’s Well, Malvern, which had an octagonal cottage which was then a kite shop. I had no idea there were hundreds of other holy wells. But after reading W&W, I at once set about trying to find any holy wells in Northamptonshire, where I lived, and by following up clues in old history and folklore books I soon discovered some. They often had rather splendid names – Old Mother Redcap’s; Puck’s; Priest’s; the Drumming Well (which foretold danger to the nation) – and they were mostly fairly neglected. It felt exciting and mysterious looking into things nobody else seemed to know about, deep in lonely country, so naturally this encouraged me even more.
I was already involved in amateur publishing in various ways, contributing to a punk fanzine, Crash Smash Crack Ring, and a ghost stories journal, Dark Dreams, and editing a literary magazine, the incurable. So it seemed obvious that I should start writing about holy wells. I therefore self-published a booklet, The Holy Wells of Northamptonshire (1984), cataloguing all the references I could find, and reporting on my site visits. I also visited the better-known and slightly better-preserved wells in West Penwith, Cornwall, where I went on holiday, and wrote about some of these for Wood & Water.
After a while, Hilary and Tony decided to widen the magazine’s scope and it became a “radical ecopagan feminist” journal, still very much brimming with inspiration and featuring holy wells alongside these broader themes. (Hilary was later to become a respected published poet, whose work I followed, and highly recommend). However, I thought there might be space still for a magazine just about holy wells, and so I started Source. I asked a few friends for contributions and got similar sorts of antiquities and mysteries magazines to mention what I was up to. My first readers were from the earth mysteries scene because that’s where I was coming from, but soon others got to hear about it who had a background in folklore, saints’ legends, paganism, local history and so on: I tried to keep the magazine as open-minded as possible, including both factual and impressionistic material.
I was delighted and encouraged by the number of people who came forward to help out, providing articles, artwork, publicity, subscriptions. It really seemed as though there was a great network of researchers, custodians and well-wishers out there who had just been waiting for some focal point for all their work: I just needed to be the conduit. I was also cheered when I heard from quite a few people that Source had inspired them to look after their own local holy well. I was also still sufficiently impressionable to be astounded when I got subscriptions and warm words from famous people, as I thought of them, such as the New Age writers John Michell and Rupert Sheldrake and the pagan artist Monica Sjoo.
Though major work had already been done in some parts of the country (eg, Meyrick in Cornwall; Skyring-Walters in Gloucestershire; Francis Jones in Wales) I think we probably published the first surveys of some of the lesser-known counties and areas. It therefore seemed to me that the next step should be to publish full-scale books like those earlier surveys, but I could see it would be hard to edit Source and do this too. I was fortunate to find that a keen reader, Tristan Gray Hulse, was willing to take over the magazine and grstefully handed over. The first of the books I had in mind was, I am afraid, also the last: Yorkshire Holy Wells and Springs (1989) by Edna Whelan and Ian Taylor was a splendid account, informed by Ian’s determined field-work, and accompanied by Edna’s illustrations.
Although I’m not so active in holy wells research and preservation as I was then, I’m pleased to see the way in which these ancient and lovely sacred shrines still inspire deep interest and care. I’m very grateful to Ross for taking on and looking after the Source archive, and I hope it will continue to be of interest to many readers and well-wishers.
Rediscovered/Restored: Another St. Anne’s Well near Buxton. Was there a Roman water shrine at Brough, Derbyshire?
Whilst researching for the book Holy Wells and Healings Springs of Derbyshire, I came across a reference to a holy well which appears to have been ignored. Much had been written of Bradwell’s well customs and even consideration made for its thermal spring, but this was unrecorded by authors over the years only being noted on the first series OS map. I was eager to see it if it survived and doubted it had considering I had heard nothing of it.
Overlaying the old map for the new OS map I pinpointed the location and went exploring. Taking a few steps off the main road I was pleased to see there was a well approximately where the well was marked on the older map. Also unlike other such forays this was not some boggy weed filled morass but a substantial structure and over the overflowing trough was carved into a stone the name – St. Anne’s Well. However this was a forgotten or at least unknown St Ann Well for it appears to have been completely missed from previous surveys including the most recent Jeremy Harte (2008) of English Holy Wells. However, a stone erected over the well clearly reads: Town Well or St. Anne’s Well. 1859. What was more interesting, furthermore, across the road from the well was a noted Roman settlement, Navio was there a connection?
A forgotten holy well?
The well is quite a substantial structure consisting of two separate chambers. The spring fills at first a five foot, two foot rectangular stone trough enclosed in a small walled enclosure, which presumably was constructed for people. The overflow from this fills the trough beside the wall enclosure and beneath the large stone where the well’s name is carved. The arrangement is not an uncommon one to prevent contaminating domestic and animal supply.
How old is the dedication?
Bar the inscription, there appears to be very little concrete evidence. The most official being its notation as noted in copperplate writing on the first series of the O/S map. This suggests that the site was an antiquity when the map was drawn, however the Victorian love of antiquarianism as a form of vindication it is dubious. Possibly more convincing is are the names of the houses around, both are 1700s in date and are named after the well.
The support for an ancient well.
Yet despite the lack of any concrete written evidence it is possible that this site is a very ancient one associated with the Navio settlement. Let us look at the support for that argument. Firstly, its position. The spring arises on Batham Gate the Roman road to Buxton and a few yards from the Roman settlement. It would indeed seem odd that the Romans did not know it flowing as it does so close.
Significantly perhaps, in Navio an altar was found dedicated to goddess Arnomectis who has been seen as an adopted Celtic Water deity however authorities believe this is related to the river Noe, but why not the spring? The inscription reading:
DEAE ARNOMECTE AEL MOTIO V S L L M
“To the goddess Arnomecte Aelius, willingly, gladly and deservedly fulfils his vow”
It is also probable that it is the same deity, Arnemetia, which was celebrated at Buxton, so perhaps this is a memorial from there but that it does not preclude the deity being celebrated here.
It is worth noting that on the outskirts, Brough does have another noted well which has been considered a thermal spring utilised by the Romans as a bath. It survives as a campsite pond, called Bath Spring, it is more likely that the bath was that constructed in 1830 by a Robert Middleton of Smalldale.
The evidence against
The main evidence against the theory is the lack of note of this. However evidence of absence is not absence of evidence. It may be also questioned why the well was not enclosed within the Navio enclosure. It may be that it formed a separate temple precinct and so would be kept separate. Of course there is always the possibility that some local antiquarian, decide to re-dedicate it. If they did why then not publicise it? Victorian works are full of these sorts of self-supporting arguments on antiquity so why does no one mention it? It is surprisingly absent from the main work on Bradwell – ancient and modern by Seth Evans (1912). This is surprising because the author took care to include notes on the well traditions of the community. Although he does relate that the settlement may take its name from a well at the Roman settlement. Interestingly, it is worth noting that Nottingham’s lost Saint Anne’s Well may have been called Broadwell (Bradwell?) may have been associated with the well, but it would be strangely coincidental even more so considering the well is dedicated to St. Anne (as is Buxton), this view is supported by Clarke and Roberts (1996) but they are unaware of the well!
Yet here it is a great discovery – a St Anne’s Well a few miles from the famous Buxton one – but all but unknown!
Of St. Mary’s Well, Mansfield, English Heritage’s Pastscape entry reads:
“There is much modern development in this area and there is now no surface evidence of a former well: local enquiry also negative.”
Such is the entry detailing the investigation in 1974. With Pastscape being such as useful resource it would be easy to leave it there, but in holy well research it’s not always a good idea to leave others to do the research….
Of this well called the Virgin Mary’s Well or the Old Bath (SK 548 616) little history is recorded. Indeed, the earliest record is Harrold (1801) work on Mansfield, who appears to separate the two sites as he notes that:
“Near the bath is a huge rock from which issues a constant stream of water much coveted by amateurs of the lipid element…Though I am not of the tribe of water drinkers I had the curiosity to taste thereof and pronounce it to be neither saline nor tepid.”
According to Groves (1894) the well had valuable medicinal properties and notes that if exploited it could increase the importance of the town. However, there is no evidence that this attempt to develop the site into a spa happened, although it was much frequented. He notes that a man called White, who was 80 in 1891 used to bathe in the well when he was a boy, although the water was so cold that he would not bath in it long!
The spring was used to fill a public bath in 1823 being enclosed in the grounds of Bath or Goldie’s Mill which sadly was partly demolished in 2008 after years of dereliction. However, the well appears to disappear from view soon after Groves and no mention is made of it. Could it be destroyed?
Doing a bit more research, I uncovered a survey made by the Sherwood Archaeology Society (1998), which recorded a well which they referred to it as the Bath Mill Spring and suggest tradition thought it was a Roman Bath! It would appear that the well still survived (or at least did in 1998). They recorded it as follows:
“The spring’s chamber is around 2.5 metres square with a vaulted roof. The interior is of undressed local stone and completely rendered. At the rear of the chamber is a tank made of finely dressed limestone 75cm by 107cm and about 75cm deep. The tank was fed by water channels from the rear and the side of the structure and has an outlet conduit which presumably empties into the river which is approximately four metres below the tank. Due to the general drop in the level of the water table, the actual source of the water is now lost. Access to the water source is via four steps. The floor and a side platform show considerable evidence of heavy usage. The top three steps have been reconstructed at some time and it would appear that the chamber’s threshold has been raised. Also at a more recent date a low but substantial brick wall has been built immediately in front of the cistern. The purpose of this is not clear.”
Such a detailed report meant that the site should still exist and so I contacted the president of the society who gave me more information and I set out a warm Sunday morning to find it. Arriving at the location I met a man from Severn Trent who was doing a check on the sewerage works which was fortunate as he knew the site. Fortunately it was not in the works but the other side. He showed me from the other bank and I looked over into a morass of shoulder high nettles and brambles! Walking around to the other side my first obstacle was clear the walk way to the mill was very permanently locked! This was frustrating as I now knew the site was there and was eager to find out more. There was a second option, I noticed a garden abutted the waste area enclosing the well and I gingerly enquired of the lady there. She very kindly said it was okay and seemed pleased to hear someone was visiting the site for the right reasons, adding it was often the haunt of youths.
I jumped the fence into the boggy hole surrounding the site and made my way to where I thought it was. Soon I found the ground getting more sodden and soon I found the well. It was exactly as described above and quite substantial considering it was so little known. A 20 metre stone flagged pathway leads from the mill and such the cistern was probably built at the same time as the mill, and that the owner’s used it as a source of fresh water and was possibly moved when the approach road was moved. The description above fits what greets us today. Fortunately, it survives, but perhaps not for long as the site is now threatened with destruction as the derelict mill and lands around it are soon to be developed. Hopefully, this, the only surviving sacred spring in the towns of Nottinghamshire can be preserved for future generations.
Perhaps Hertfordshire’s most famed well, dedicated to the first British Christian Martyr, and thus called St. Alban’s Well or Holy Well (TL 149 068) and as such one could argue it is the earliest Christian holy well in Britain.
Who was St. Alban?
Gildas and Bede accredit his martyrdom to the ruler Diocletian (c305), later authorities attribute Septimus severnus (c209) or Decieus (c254) to the act. His conversion to Christianity occurred when he sheltered a wanted priest (later St. Amphibalus). The priest taught Alban and baptised him as a Christian. The two exchanged clothes and, allowing the priest to escape, Alban was captured instead. He was tried and sent to be executed. The journey to his execution, now locally commemorated each weekend close to St Alban’s Feast Day, is when the spring arose!
The legend of the spring
It is said that upon climbing the hill to his martyrdom became tired and thirsty. Falling to his knees he prayed to God to quench this thirst and miraculously a spring of fresh water appeared. This is however only one origin for the spring. The other story states that after being taken to the old city of Verulam, he refused to offer pagan sacrifice, and was executed. His severed head rolled down the hill and where it rested a spring burst forth. This is a common holy well motif. After the adoption of the Christian church in the third century the spring gained great notoriety (although it is of course plausible that the spring was a pre-Christian site, gaining greater pilgrimage with Christian doctrine). St. Alban was also adopted, and finally installed in a Shrine in the Abbey. This was restored after the Reformation and is a beautiful example of a Pre-Reformation Shrine.
A spring of Arthurian romance?
This spring was strangely absorbed into Arthurian romance. It has been associated with mythical Romano-Celt ruler Uther Pendragon, father of the also possibly mythical King Arthur. The spring is said to have healed his wounds, and the incident is recorded during the reign of Richard II, by Chronicler Brompton:
“….Uter Pendragon, a British Prince, had fought the Saxons in a great battle at this place, and received a dangerous wound: and lay a long time confined to his bed: and that he was cured at length by resorting to a well or spring not far distant from the city; at that time salubrious; and for that reason, and for the cures thereby performed, esteemed holy; and blessed in a peculiar manner with the flavour of Heaven ..”
The well through the ages
The Benedictine nuns of the nearby nunnery were according to Matthew Paris, said to have dipped their bread in the well, and hence earned it the name of Sopwell. Until the reformation the well rivalled Walsingham in its popularity among the sick and troubled. Even in the 19th century the ‘Holy-well’ was “still held in some estimation, for its purity and salubrious qualities.” It then lay on the lawns of the Duke of Marlborough’s Holywell House, which was latter demolished.
Until the 1980s, the site was marked by a stone on the playing fields of the local Grammar school. However, in the 1980s, the site was at risk from developers, as the school wished to sell off its fields. This precipitated local interest, and a campaign organised by a Mr. Tony Haines, and set out to rediscover the well and ensure that it was preserved. This they finally did, although the site was not officially recognised by the local council, despite it corresponding to ancient maps, local knowledge as well as remains of medieval brickwork. Fortunately, the developer was sympathetic and in a rare example of preservation, restored it. It now stands in a small walled garden. The well was repaired by brickwork, and fitted with a protective grille over it. Interestingly, a combination of wet weather coupled with the water authorities ceasing pumping from the Ver’s source, has meant that the water table has returned and water can be seen in the well.
This restored site can be found by going up Holywell Hill Road, then taking the righthand road, Belmont Hill ( if approaching from Junction one M10 ). Take next right, into new housing estate, then left and the well is found in a small garden on the left.
The well survives, well as long as the housing estate does! It has become the centre of a local religious groups devutions as well!
Back in the mid 90s when I started seeking out holy wells, I came across reference to a site just outside of Thetford. I’d planed to visit the site and found it to be one of the most curious in the county. It is marked on the first series of the OS map in Gothic writing but was it that old?
A substantial site is located in Shadwell Park called St. Chad’s Well (TL 933 830). However, despite the name I can find no history or traditions about it, the first author to refer to the well is Bryant (1901) who states it is marked on an ancient map but as I note below I have been unable to substantiate this. Was it an ancient well?
Icewell, holy well or folly?
The well is enclosed is a circular dome of flint and mortar with a passage entrance facing west. The structure is supported by a stone pillar. The structure is not dissimilar to an ice-well which indeed it has been claimed it was but no-one would build an ice-well with a spring in it. A medieval fabric claim was made, but is of probable 19th Century date and is an estate folly; a grottification of a simple spring, utilising old stone work. This spring arises from the hillside and enters into a basin kerbed in stone through a hole in the flint wall of the structure. Above this is an arched recess. The water is channelled into a narrow gutter to exit through the north wall. The concrete floor of the chamber is below ground level reached by five stairs in the passageway. There are two lighting niches in the walls at the east and the southwest. Six stone blocks are arranged to form seats. Below the arch of the spring of the arch of the domed roof are six brackets which possibly served as candle stands.
St Chad or Boundary spring?
Unlikely although St Cedd his brother evangelised East Anglia, Chad wells are very common in the region. This is because they arise from the Old English Chaud meaning cold and thus cold spring! In this case it is apparent that the name may well be a back-derivation as its location on East Hall and Gonville Manors boundary suggests name derives from O.E scead for ‘boundary’ this is emphasised by the name of the estate Shadwell – sceadwell! Indeed the estate Shadwell Court is only first mentioned in White (1845) as the house was built in the 1830s with associated statues. Historic England records:
“Robert Buxton acquired the manor of Rushworth in Shadwell during the C16, initially holding a lease from the fourth Duke of Norfolk. In c 1715 John Buxton, amateur architect of Channonz Hall in Tibenham, began to rebuild what he called Shadwell Lodge and to lay out the grounds. The main features however of the design which survives today (1999), including the layout of the plantations and the creation of the lake, are the work of his son, also John, between the 1740s and 1760s and these are recorded on William Faden’s map of the county dated 1797. “
This suggests the well was a folly capitalising on the spring name using the carved stonework which may have originally been part of Thetford Priory, giving it a rustic religious feel. However this does not mean that the well was not of significance. Boundaries often incorporated springs as sites of note, or as disputed sites and having them on boundaries allowed equal access. As many Parish boundaries date from Angl0-Saxon periods it is possible that the well had a significant position in the settlement. There is evidence of an ancient settlement here with flint flakes and blades from the Neolithic and Bronze Age were found around the well and Roman funeral urns and Saxon tumuli in the park. Furthermore the well is also located close to Peddar’s Way, suggesting pilgrim use perhaps. So was it a Holy well as noted 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales:
“SHADWELL……It takes its name from a spring called St. Chad’s well, formerly much frequented by pilgrims.”
This begs the question is this just antiquarian fancy or are we missing some records of its history? Was it frequented by those on the way to Walsingham…if so its forgotten by them now.
“All ye who hither come to drink/Rest not your thoughts below/Look at that sacred sign and think/Whence living waters flow”.
Ashwell’s Wishing’ Well is one of those frustrating sites. It is clearly a structure of some importance, being one of the best built up in the midlands, but how significant is it?
The sacred Ash
Peter Binnall (1935) in his Folklore of Wells notes that ash tree are very often associated with holy wells. The Ash was considered a sacred tree in Scaninavian countries and Britain. It was identified as Yggdrasil, the legendary tree associated with the god Odin. It is significant to note that at its roots was a spring where the Norns: Fate, Being and Necessity lived who used the spring to water the tree each day and used clay from it to keep the tree white to preserve its life. and whitened it with clay from the well, preserving its life.
However that does not mean that a well named after an ash is a culted spring. However, as Val Shepherd notes in her 1994 Historic wells around Bradford notes Holy Well Ash as well as Syke Well, Priestly which still has ash trees over it, as have Peggy Well, Riddlesden and White Well Harden. Hertfordshire has a significant seven springs in the town of Ashwells which is associated with a Roman shrine and the ash above St Betram’s Well, Ilam Staffordshire was protected by a ‘curse’ which suggested that any person who harmed it would themselves be harmed. Indeed my research has suggested there is an Ashwell in every county but I have not been bold enough to suggest there would be any significance in these names
Is this the well of the village?
Over the time the name of the village has changed from Exwell in the xi century; then Assewell, Ayswell, Aiswell (xiii century; and then Aswelle, Ashewell, Assewell xiv century and possibly the spring in which the village is named after, although some authorities note is derived from O.E wiella for stream although that does not preclude the spring being the source of course.
Furthermore, finding any associated tradition or history is impossible. The name wishing well is a modern term it appears unsupported by evidence. Some local belief that it may have been a holy well, and a cross was once erected over the structure.
The well today
When I first visited the well in the 1990s it looked a little forlorn, the cross said to be affixed to the apex of the building had gone and apparently fallen into private hands (I subsequently discovered its current whereabouts and it is safe!)
The spring arises in a substantial stone well house. This is made of squared rubble with a dressed stone coping. It is like a small grotto-like covered niche with an opening to the front with convex curved walls each side. Above the arched doorway an inscription reads. The spring fills a small pool at base of niche within in the rockface showing this is a spring not a well.
In conclusion it would suggest that the spring’s development was an attempt by a Victorian clergymen to both gentrify the site and as thus built a proper well house with its legend. Was there a High Church tradition in the village in the 1800s not that I have so far discovered?
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.
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.
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.”
The 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.
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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