Category Archives: Wiltshire
Folly estates are often a good place to find substantial holy wells and sacred sites and to north-west of Stourhead Gardens splendid Stourhead Estate, a National Trust property, is a splendid example – St. Peter’s Pump. However, yet like many such sites, the origins and names are confusing to explain. The well head, unlike some sites, is very easy to find being a high medieval cross sitting slightly incongruously upon a rubble grotto where the spring, now dry, arose. A strange hotchpotch
The well, is one of supposedly six, giving the site the official name of Six Wells. The earliest reference, is before the folly was John Leland in the 16th century noted:
“ther of 6 fountaines or springes, whereof 3 be on the northe side of the parke harde withyn the pale.”
He also noted that Lord Stourton, a family name of great antiquity has six fountains on his coat of arms. Such sources of great rivers often attract folklore, although none appear surprisingly to be holy wells. The name Six Wells first appears in 1822.
King Alfred’s holy well?
The origin of the springs is said to owe itself to King Alfred the Great, the great Anglo-Saxon King. In her 1932 book, Moonraking a little book of Wiltshire stories, Edith Oliver tells us
“It is said, when tired from fighting with the Danes, King Alfred and his soldiers prayed for water, and up came six wells or springs. If the legend is true, if this is not a holy well, surely a heaven-sent one.”
Indeed, I have argued how royal wells were often seen as sacred and considering Alfred’s standing it seems likely these were. However, his name appears never to have been associated with the well. The king is remembered in a substantial folly tower not far from the springs, but his absence here is quite surprising?
Why St. Peter?
Where the name St. Peter’s Pump comes from is at first unclear. There is a record according to Gover, Mawer and Stenton’s 1939 Place Names of Wiltshire of a Peterswells in 1279 somewhere in Wiltshire, was it here? The name St. Peter is in itself rarely associated with British Holy Wells. To add to the confusion, the site is also called St. Agnes Pump, the reason being that it derives from the origin of the medieval cross which tops the grotto structure. The present structure was built by Henry Hoare in 1786.
The moving cross
The cross was originally a pump, which has six square posts with moulded cappings to six ogee- arched openings each with cherubs over each, then there are six niches with semi-circular heads above each containing a seated figure with hexagonal moulded pillar and narrower shaft to top. Interestingly a date 1768 is incised on east side of pillar. An odd date for a medieval cross said to be 14th century, so why?
The reason why the date of 1768 is incised on the pump is because it was moved. The pump head originally sat over St. Edith’s Well, in the City of Bristol. It once stood at the junction of Peter Street and Dolphin Street in Bristol for 300 years and provided water for the city. Then in a strange form of forward thinking beneficial vandalism, it was dismantled under an 1766 Act of Parliament, which looked to improve transport in Bristol and placed upon a purposely made grotto. The well itself was also moved. It may seem strange that I view this as beneficial, but the exact spot of the cross was hit by a bomb in the Second World War, which caused the nearby church to be ruined and would have destroyed the cross. The well according to Phil Quinn’s 1999 Holy wells of Bristol and Bath Region:
“Today both the old and new wells lie under the flagstones of Castle Park, the site of the old St. Edith’s Well being marked by a slab laid upside down and of a lighter colour than its neighbours.”
Quinn states that the Bristol well was called St Peter when it was repaired in the 15th century after the church nearby…the Peterswell in Wiltshire would appear to be a red herring! The name originating when in 1546 pumping mechanisms were established subsequently being recorded as Saynt Peter’s plumpe. So mystery solved.
Another reason for the 17th century date is to explain the difference between the original cross in Bristol and its appearance now. What is above the niches is 18th century as the top of the cross is lost. Was it broken in transit? Vandalised in the 18th century? Or too Catholic?
So all in all a curious hotchpotch of history, much like the structure itself.
As this April, we mark 90 years old Elizabeth II, I thought it is worth looking at a well associated with her famed same named ancestor, Queen Elizabeth I. She as we have seen has been associated with quite a number of wells and springs, so many to suggest that perhaps a cult was developed to capitalise on her. One of the most interesting is situated in a private garden of a house in Rye. Called the Queen’s Well or Queen Elizabeth’s Well it was one of the principal source of water for the extensive conduits of the town. It arises at the base of grey stone walling in a semi-circular hole. A keystone over well reads:
The origin of the name is said to have derived from the Queen’s visit in 1573 when she met Thomas Walsingham and the Jurats of the town. The story is recorded by William Holloway (1847) The History and Antiquities, of the Ancient, Town and Port of Rye, In The County of Sussex, Incidental Notices of the Cinque Ports, Compiled from Manuscripts and Original Authorities in his who records:
“in a northerly direction, beneath a high bank, once a wild and sequestered spot, and still overshadowed by some ancient oaks, rises a perennial spring of clear and sweet water, honoured with the high and royal appellation of ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Well,’ from the circumstance of her Majesty, in one of her progresses through the kingdom, having visited Rye, when she halted at this spot, either to drink of the water which flowed from this spring, or for the purpose of receiving the corporation of the town, when the mayor and jurats went in procession out of the town to receive her, clad in scarlet robes.
Whereupon the queen, as Jeake says, “from the noble entertainment she had, accompanied with the testimonies of love and loyalty, duty and reverence she received from the people, was pleased to call it ‘Rye Royal.’”
Adam’s. 1925 London noted that:
“The event was not recorded until 1588, when two stones were placed over the head of the spring, bearing the following inscription : “1588E.R.” (signifying Elizabeth Regina) ; and ” M. Gaymer, Maior” (Michael Gaymer, who was Mayor when the stones were put up). There is a traditionary report that the members of the Corporation went out of the town in procession, clad in scarlet robes, to-‘ receive and welcome Her Majesty, she probably halting for this purpose at the spring above mentioned, afterwards entering the town by the Postern Gate, which then faced the road leading to this spot.”
Interestingly Holloway (1847) notes:
“But though the year is thus distinctly inscribed on this stone as being 1588, yet Jeake sets down the date of the queen’s coming to Rye in 1573. How these dates are to be reconciled I know not, unless we conclude, which seems to be the case, that her Majesty came to Rye in 1573, while the event was not recorded until 1588.”
Lost traditions of the well?
Deacon (1911) in his Ancient Rye raises some interesting points. Why did Elizabeth process from the well? Was it recording a tradition that the Jurats of the town knew of?
Furthermore, the 1588 dedication is interesting. Why did it take so long from her 1564 visit till then to name the well? The answer is easier probably because in the euphoria of the Armada celebration many sites were probably dedicated to the Queen as a mark of solidarity.
It is interesting to note that the house, Mountsfield, beside the well was built upon land donated by Elizabeth and the owners allowed local people to use the land for festivals and I wonder whether this is significant. A point I will refer to in a moment. Lost healing well?
Another name for the well is Dodeswell, which derives from O.E dowde for a ‘plain woman, a scold or shrew’, presumably describing the women who gathered there! Moreover were these women local white witches one wonders who knew the powers of the well? In L. A. Vidler’s 1934 book ‘A New History of Rye’ states that the alternative name for the well was ‘Blekewell’ rather than ‘Brekewell’, so it probably does not refer to the bricked nature of the well, but from O.E bleke, referring to the ‘blay’ a freshwater fish. Alternatively it may refer to bleak meaning in medieval times pale or sickly, rather than its common usage today. Does this suggest the well was curative? Another piece of potential evidence is recorded in 1762, when an acre of Brickwell field was leased to for the building of an isolation house for smallpox victims. Is this still coincidence? Did Elizabeth stop because she knew of the healing waters? Another rather more prosaic alternative origin is from a local landower, there was a Thomas Blekewelle living in the town in 1459. Whether it was a holy well is unclear, it appears to have soon fallen out of domestic use in the 1800s as Holloway (1847) notes that:
“Queen Elizabeth’s Well is about four hundred and eighty yards from the foot of Conduit hill, where the Postern gate formerly stood. The well was always visible from the road which passes by it till the year 1843, when a wall was erected which excluded it from the public view.”
Deacon (1911) notes that in 1858, Mr Curteis, owner of Grove Cottage, where the well lies was asked by the Borough Treasurer to deposit a keys so that the public could see the well. I am not sure that such an arrangement exists today but I was lucky to find the owner in when I called and the well was in full flow overfilling the small semi-circular dip hole filling a small pool and then into a round brick built conduit house. Comparing with early photos the well has changed a bit. The wall remains the same, although the plaques may have moved, it is the square hatch at the basin covered by a wooden lid, which has markedly has gone, being filled with stonework to match the wall. This access appears to have been replaced by the dip well which does not appear to exist in the early photos. I have been unable to find out when it was done.
I am sure there is much to be learnt about this ancient Sussex well but holy, healing or just politically famous, the old Queen’s Well is at least a great memorial to a time of political and religious change.
GUEST BLOG Bob Trubshaw’s ‘Neolithic, Anglo-Saxon or modern day -spot the difference at Alton’s Broadwells’
Bob Trubshaw will be familiar to many readers as the Heart of Albion publisher and writer of innumerable books on folklore and mythology. Having a long interest in holy wells and sacred springs, his book Holy wells of Leicestershire and Rutland back in 1990 was one of the new wave of books on the subject coming on the tide from Sacred Waters and the Source Journal. As a publisher he has been responsible for commisioning three excellent works Holy Wells in Britain, Cures and curses both by Janet Bord and the seminal and indespensable (not that the former two weren’t) English Holy Wells by Jeremy Harte. So with credentials like that it is a great honour and priveledge for Bob to write for our Summer guest spot…
Sacred waters venerated ever since people have been living in Britain.’
It’s a quote which seemingly could come from almost any book about holy wells written in the last fifty years.
Yet, as Jeremy Harte has painstakingly established in his book English Holy Wells, there is little evidence for ‘holy wells’ which predate Christianity. On the one hand is a widespread popular belief which deems all wells to have be places of pagan worship. On the other, is the scant evidence which is rarely sufficient to satisfy historians or archaeologists of ritual activities. In part this is because the written sources relating to holy wells are usually uninformative – perhaps nothing more than a passing mention – and also because there are few opportunities to excavate around wells. Even when archaeologists do, they can only make the most generalised assumptions about any surviving objects were there.
But the exceptions can be dramatic. One of the few major ‘digs’ at or near springs in recent years continues to reveal a remarkable quantity of Mesolithic flints. This is the site at Amesbury known (misleadingly) as Vespasian’s Camp and more blandly as Blick’s Mead. This riverside spring-fed pool was clearly a place where a great many generations of Mesolithic people gathered, long before the construction of Stonehenge just a short distance to the west. Indeed, it is little more than a stone’s throw from the start of the Avenue which leads from the banks of the River Avon to the megaliths themselves.
Not to be confused with a river of the same name which flows through Warwickshire and into the Severn, this Avon starts life Wiltshire and flows southwards through Hampshire into the Solent. The whole catchment area contains a wealth of Neolithic archaeology. Clearly this was a river system which acted as a major communication route in prehistoric times.
The water flowing past Blicks Mead has already come past two other major Neolithic monuments – the ‘mega-henges’ at Marden (now reduced to fragmentary banks and ditches) and Durrington Walls. And, further upstream, the source of all the water is in various springs nestling under the chalk escarpment which looks down on the Vale of Pewsey. Along the summit are several early Neolithic causewayed enclosures and various Iron Age hillforts. The Anglo-Saxon Wansdyke is the most recent of these major earthworks.
The best-preserved of the causewayed enclosures is Knapp Hill. Alongside it is the contemporaneous early Neolithic chambered long barrow now known as Adam’s Grave but formerly as ‘Woden’s bury’. The ditches and mound align with midwinter sunrise. Just a little way to the west is one of the most impressive of the hill figures in Wiltshire – the Alton Barnes white horse.
The white horse, the long barrow and the causewayed enclosure are all prominent on the skyline when standing near a small wood situated between the settlements of Alton Barnes and Alton Priors. Both hamlets have small churches, one with an Anglo-Saxon nave and the other built a few centuries later but with a massive hollow yew tree in the small churchyard. Lift one of the two trapdoors in the floor of the church and you will find a ‘buried standing stone’ – although, truth be told, no one is sure why it is there or whether it ever stood upright.
Both churches and the nearby prehistoric monuments are all well worth visiting. But the real interest is in the small wood. Two rickety stiles provide access. Within there are two spring-fed pools, each flowing into separate streams which eventually converge – on a map they look rather like a blue tuning fork. The water in each pool is crystal clear. Several times a minute small bubbles break away from various spots at the bottom of the pools and form ripples on the surface. These are from air released as the water escapes from the local chalk aquifer into the pools, and the only visible evidence of the water flowing into the pools.
The Anglo-Saxons knew this as the source of the Avon. The modern name ‘Alton’ was spelt Aweltun in 885. It means literally ‘the farmstead at the well or source of a river’.
I have been to many muddy patches in fields, seen plenty of dilapidated stone structures, and all such modern evidence of sites which in medieval times were considered to be holy wells. But none of them have the sheer magic of the Alton springs. Knowing that the water gently bubbling up will, in the next few days, flow past Marden, Durrington Walls and Stonehenge, adds to the enchantment.
To my knowledge there has been no archaeological activity near these two springs. Yet the presence of the causewayed enclosure and long barrow all-but confirms that Mesolithic and Neolithic people would have used this is their source of water. They too would have been aware that this was the source of the river which defines the region. In all probability there are as many buried flint tools in the vicinity of these pools as have been discovered at Amesbury. Who knows what long-gone perishable organic artefacts there might have been as well.
If you ever want to experience standing beside ‘sacred waters venerated ever since people have been living in Britain’ then visit these spring-fed pools at Alton.
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Guest blog for Autumn James Rattue.
The Swallowhead spring is a bit of an enigma. Is it a holy well? Folklore (1915) notes:
“A sacred spring – It was formerly the custom to make merry with cakes, figs and sugar mixed with water from the Swallowhead, the sacred spring of the district, and the principal source of the river Kennet.”
And that is it really! No saint is claimed. No healing claim. Although it telling perhaps that the words sacred spring is used. The custom of drinking the water with sugar etc is a widespread one and interestingly often the wells are not Christianised, which may or may not be significant. The drinking of the Swallowhead water did have a Christianised element it was associated with a Palm Sunday festivities on Silbury Hill of which the author notes:
“Silbury Hill is to this day thronged every Palm Sunday afternoon by hundreds from Avebury, Kennet, Overton, and the adjoining villages.”
Stukeley in his Abury work states:
“It seems no difficult matter to point out the time of year when this great prince died, who is here interr’d, viz. about the beginning of our present April. I gather it from this circumstance. The country people ahve an anniversary meeting on the top of Silbury-hill on every palm-Sunday, when they make merry with cakes, figs, sugar, and water fetch’d from the Swallow-head, or spring of the Kennet. This spring was much more remarkable than at present, gushing out of the earth, in a continued stream. They say it was spoil’d by digging for a fox who earth’d above, in some cranny thereabouts; this disturb’d the sacred nymphs, in a poetical way of speaking.”
Of course you could argue that being the purest source in the area it would the only place to get your water and that Silbury being the highest point would be ideal for celebrating. However, that could be seen as over cynical! Stukeley adds:
“… I took notice that apium grows plentifully about the spring-head of the Kennet. Pliny writes defunctorum epulis dicatum apium. To this day the country people have a particular regard for the herbs growing there, and a high opinion of their virtue.”
Interesting is the springs association with the river Kennet, probably a sacred, and certainly significant transport river of prehistoric peoples of the valley. However this view that this is the source is in itself erroneous and appears to have spread by Stukeley (1740) who writes:
“There are two heads of the river Kennet: one from a little north-west of Abury, at Monkton, runs southward to Silbury Hill: this affords little water, except in wet seasons. At Silbury Hill it joins the Swallow Head, or true fountain of the Kennet, which the country people call by the old name Cunnit, and it is not a little famous among them. This is a plentiful spring.”
Despite this reference the spring is not the source of this noted river which actually rises at Broad Hinton some four miles north west. The stream which forms from the Swallowhead is the Winterbourne which joins the Kennet, although the infant Kennet does join this stream.
What’s in a name? Swale, Swill or Sulis?
The name of Winterbourne is of course again significant. Streams which are seasonal or intermittent, commonly found in chalk areas, were often seen as uncanny and collect associated folklore. Although no such folklore concerning this behaviour is recorded here, it seems likely that part of the ‘cult’, if that is what we can call it, would have been connected with this. Similarly, swallow is a common term of rivers found in areas of intermittent streams, often on the chalk, often to explain how a stream disappears into the ground, erupting elsewhere.
The name ‘Swallow Head’ appears to have the same source as Swill also in Wiltshire and the Swale in Kent and Yorkshire, and derives from old German swal, meaning ‘swell’ or ‘whirlpool’. However, there may be an alternative origin which appears to have been not recorded. Does it is derive from Sulis? Therefore a sacred spring to the Romano-Britis, the God combined with Minerva at Bath and so the site retain a pre-Roman god, but one acceptable to them. The Romans were active in the area and in the last five years a Roman town has been excavated only a few yards from this site.
A modern sacred spring?
Fast forward several hundred years and the Swallowhead has indeed become a sacred spring for a whole new community. Visiting the site today, as Leary and Field (2011) in their book The Story of Silbury Hill note:
“One only need wander down to the Swallowhead spring, just south of Silbury, to see how Dames influential book has become tradition. The rags hanging from the willow tree, to say nothing of the other votive offerings around the springhead – crystals, candles, wind chimes to mention but a few – announce that you are entering contemporary sacred ground.”
“The willow has now cracked forming an arch, creating a sort of portal one has to go through, which helps give the impression that you are entering a different realm.”
Jordan in the Haunted Landscape (2001) notes:
In 1998 there were various bits of rag tied to the tree, but also a child’s glove and a postcard with a child’s drawing of fairies and butterflies fastened to the truck with drawing pins
Micheal Dames work on Silbury Hill and the Averbury Circle () perhaps is the source of this devotion. Dames recognises the spring with the Great Goddess.
“When the land was regarded as the body of the Goddess, and fertility as always depended on water it would follow naturally that the twin headwater streams would be equated to a twin lobbed uterus.”
This appears to have lead to a widespread view amongst neo-Pagans that the springs were dedicated the Celtic Goddess Brid or Bridget who accordingly was associated with the return of the flow of water. Certainly, what with the Winterbourne’s intermittent flow this would be convenient; there is not a thread of evidence! But does that matter? Clearly the springs in this valley, Pot, Walden and Silbury Springs, were considered significant to our ancient forefathers for whatever reason and today they have that function for our neo-Pagans, in a rare site, a spiritual one which has never been Christianised but remained significant it is remains a potent site. A Holy well for a modern generation perhaps.
Water holds an innate fascination with us as a species; it is both source of essential life giving power but a still untameable force which can be unpredictable and dangerous. So it is not surprising that as well as considered to healing and holy, springs and wells have a darker side. A side I am going to explore, in a fitting post for Hallowe’en. In this overview I intend to discuss these sites, many of which only have their name to suggest this dark origin. Of these Puck or Pook Wells are the commonest, deriving from O.E pwca meaning goblin. Puck is as Shakespeare immortalises, a type of fairy. Of these there are site recorded on the Isle of Wight (Whitwell), Wiltshire (West Knowle), Essex (Waltham Holy Cross), Derbyshire (Repton), Somerset (Rode), Northamptonshire (Aynho) and Kent (Rolvenden and St. Paul’s Cray), The latter does underline the otherworldy nature of springs which despite being in an area of urbanisation. It fills a boggy hollow just off the footpath and even on a busy summer’s day you feel remote. Joining the Puckwells is the more general Pisky or Pixy well (the spirit which has led the written many times astray), a term found generally in the South-west such as the site in Cornwall (Alternun) and Somerset (Allerford). One can certainly feel the presence of these folk on a visit to the former especially with is ancient mossy basin and small wellhouse. The second most common otherworldly character is Knucker, Nicker, Nikor or Nicher. This is a pagan Norse monster, which some have associated with St. Nicholas, who is said to have fought a sea monster. The most famous site is the Knucker Pit in Lyminster (West Sussex). This is associated with a notable legend which records that the dragon terrorised the countryside and took away the daughter of the King of Sussex. The king offered the hand this daughter to anyone who would kill it and a wandering knight did poison the beast and claimed her hand. The term appears to apply to sites from Kent (Westbere), Edgefield (Norfolk) and Lincoln. One wonders, whether these had similar legends. Thor is perhaps commemorated in a number of wells and springs, especially it seems in the counties were the Danish influence was greatest, the most famed of these being Thorswell at Thorskeld, near Burnstall (North Yorkshire), interestingly this is one of the areas St Wilifrid is said to have converted. Less well known are other sites can be postulated in Lincolnshire with Thirspitts (Waltham, Lincs), Threshole (Saxilby Lincs), Thuswell (Stallinborough, Lincs) and Uffington’s Thirpolwell (Lincs). The latter most certainly, a likely candidate, but of the others there may not even be evidence they are springs let alone their otherworldly origin. The O.N term Thyrs for giant may be an origin. There are a number of springs and water bodies associated with what could be considered pagan gods, but I will elaborate on these in a future post. Many spectral water figures in the country are called Jenny. Whelan (2001) notes a Jenny Brewster’s Well, Jenny Friske’s well, Jenny Bradley’s Well. The name is frequently encountered in Lincolnshire, were a Hibbaldstow’s Stanny Well, where a woman carrying her head under her arm, called Jenny Stannywell, who once upon a time drowned herself in the water. At a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. This little creature was like a small man or woman, though it had a face of a seal with long hair. It travelled on the water in a large pie dish. It would cross the water in a boat shaped like a pie dish, using spoons to row. One wonders whether there is a story behind Jenny’s Well near Biggin (Derbyshire). Sometimes these weird creatures were doglike like that said to frequent Bonny Well in Lincolnshire. Many of these creatures such as the one eyed women from Atwick’s Holy well span the real and the otherworldly.
When discussing the spirit world, by far the commonest otherworldy being associated with wells. Ghosts are also associated with springs. Sometimes they are saintly, such as St Osyth (Essex), but often if not a saint, they are female such as a pool in Chislehurst caves, Lady’s Well, Whittingham (Northumberland), Lady well, Ashdon (Essex), White Lady’s Spring, (Derbyshire) Peg of Nells Well , Waddow (Lancashire) Marian’s Well Uttoxeter (Staffordshire), Julian’s Well, Wellow (Somerset), Agnes’s Well Whitestaunton (Somerset), a Chalybeate spring in Cranbrook (Kent) and so the list goes on and is a suitable discussion point for a longer future post. All that can be said is that the female spirits outweigh the male ones and this must be significant. To end with, that staple of Hallowe’en, the witch, is sometimes associated with springs, especially in Wales. This associated perhaps reflects their ‘pagan origins’ or else there procurement post-Reformation, afterall it was thought that they stole sacred water from fonts, so it is freely flowing elsewhere why make the effort! The most famous of these being Somerset’s Witches Well (Pardlestone) this was said to have been avoided by locals until it a local wise man three salt over the well and removed their presence. So there was a rather brief and perhaps incomplete exploration of the unlikely combination between holy wells and the darker aspects. In a future post I will explore the associations with ghosts and in another on supposed evidence of pre-Christian gods and goddesses at wells.