Category Archives: Yorkshire
A cursory check of the internet will show the perceived view of rag wells – most commonly called – clootie wells are that they are a Celtic pagan as summed up by the 21st century source of all information it seems Wikipedia:
“Clootie wells (also Cloutie or Cloughtie wells) are places of pilgrimage in Celtic areas.”
The online article goes on to list three sites in Scotland, Cornwall and Ireland – to emphasise this! However, the earliest recorded site is not only in England, but a fair distance from traditional Celtic homelands being on the north east in Yorkshire!
It is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner earliest reference is made to an association with a well. It describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that:
“they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts”.
Francis Grose in his 1773 The Antiquities of England and Wales also records that:
“Between the towns of Alten and Newton near the foot of Roseberrye Toppinge there is a well dedicated to St Oswald. The neighbours have an opinion that a shirt or shift taken off a sick person and thrown into that well, will show whether that person will recover or die; for if it floated it denoted the recovery of the party; if it sunk, there remained no hope of their life: and to reward the saint for his intelligence , they tear off a rag off the shirt and leave it hanging on the briars thereabouts: where I have seen such numbers as might have made a fayre rhime in a paper mill.”
However by Rev. John Graves 1808’s The History of Cleveland all mention of hanging rags appears forgotten or not known by the author who states that:
“Within the parish, at the northern extremity of Cliffrigg-Wood, and about two hundred paces to the eastward from Langbargh-Quarry, there is a copious spring of clear water, called Chapel-Well, which had formerly a bath &c. and was, till of late years, much resorted on the Sundays in the summer months by the youth of the neighbouring villages, who assembled to drink the simple beverage, and to join in a variety of rural diversions. But the harmlessness of this innocent recreation was at length destroyed by Spiritous liquors, furnished by the village-innkeepers: when the custom became discountenanced, and was soon after discontinued”
Yet when the Rev. George Young in his 1817 History of Whitby he does refer to the festivities but mentions the rags suggesting the custom was still concurrent:
“At the north end of Cliffrigg Wood, a little to the east of Langbargh quarry, is a copious spring, once the resort of superstition. It was supposed that when a shirt or shift was taken from a sick person and thrown into this well, the person would recover if it floated, but would die if it sunk. A rag of the shirt was torn off and hung on the bushes, as an offering to St Oswald, to whom the well was dedicated; and so numerous were the devotees, that, as an ancient writer states, the quantity of rags, suspended around the well, might have furnished material for a ream of paper. It is called Chapel Well, having once had a chapel, or cell, beside it, with a bath and other conveniences. As superstition is the handmaid of impiety, it is not surprising to find that a sunday fair was held here for many ages: this disgraceful nuisance is now happily removed.”
Perhaps the loss of the merrymaking resulted in a loss of the custom as when Frank Elgee visited in the 1930s noted in his 1957 A Man of the Moors, extracts from the Diaries and Letters of Frank Elgee (published in 1992) he described as:
“18 July 1936. “This evening we took the bus to Langbaurgh Quarries to examine the site an ancient Chapel and its sacred Well, which are close by…a spring flowing out of an iron pipe to meet a pool muddied by the feet of cattle”.
He had hoped to find fragments of the garments hung over the pool, in past times, as charms against disease, but was disappointed.
The site today?
A visit by Graeme Chapel on the Yorkshire holy well website noted that:
“The site of this once famous well is located just to the north of Great Ayton village, in a small fenced off area at the edge of a grassy field. Today the well is a wet boggy area at the foot of a Hawthorn bush (dead?). The wells healing waters appear to have had chalybeate properties, as orange-red deposits are still visible on the boggy surface of the spring, unfortunately the spring head is now so choked that the waters seep away instead of flowing along its former drainage channel. However probing through the mud reveals what may be a paved or cobbled area in front of the spring.
Finding the exact site was a bit of a challenge. Despite being marked on the old OS maps and guidance: a couple of sites appeared to suggest to be the exact one. Sadly it was completely forgotten – no rags and not even any water – but the indication of a dead hawthorn and a soft soil suggests the correct site. No sign of any pavement except some stones nearby and no chalybeate water! Unfortunately, it was largely inaccessible being surrounded by barbed wire! However, archaeologically it would sound that may would possibly be some significant remains hereabouts – not only a well, but a bath and suggestive by the name a chapel perhaps?
Graeme Chapel’s excellent Yorkshire holy well continues:
The well lies on the parish boundary between Great Ayton and Guisborough, while to the west of the well a little used single track railway line lies a little too close for comfort, but the view to the east is dominated by the mountain-like peak of Roseberry Topping (anciently called Odinsberg) where legend has it, Oswy, the young son of king Oswald, drowned in the Odinsbery spring high up on the hill top.
A footpath leading up to the summit passes near to the well and it is possible the two places were connected in local tradition.”
Now the Odinsbery spring has often been confused with the chapel well and as Chapel notes it seems likely the two were linked. The legends associated with this site deserve a full exploration but what is interesting is that Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells records a version of the legend of Oswy, the ill-fated drowned son of Oswald:
“strolling out one day with her child, they met a party of gipsies, who were anxious to tell her the child’s fortune. After being much importuned, she assented to their request. To the mother’s astonishment and grief they prognosticated that the child would be drowned.”
Why do I make reference to this? Well one of my theories about rag wells is their association with the travelling community and although this does not explicitly mention the well it suggests that gypsies were found in the area. Indeed I saw several traditional pony and trap and caravans in the area. However, it is clear that everyone has forgotten this spring!
Holy well hunting can be a tough activity; covered in nettles, cuts, mud and water and still you may only find a boggy hole or concreted site. Even when it seems simple ie marked by a roadside it is not always easy. Therefore this is why it is important to search for wells in the winter month summed up by this comment on Geograph by a Humphrey Bolton :
“I had looked for this in vain several times, but was eventually informed by a lady of 90 years that it is under a hawthorn bush. After cautiously entering the bush from the side, removing a few nettle stems, I was able to take this photograph. Apparently it is opened up as necessary in times of drought, so there must be a stone slab under the twigs and soil.”
Thus in February I searched for the Lady well at Hartshead.
An ancient pre-Christian well
The Rev H. N Pobjoy in their 1972 ‘Story of the ancient parish of Harthead and Clifton’, states it may well have been here before the church which dates to 500 A.D in foundation. The author also states that it is possible that its waters were used by St. Paulinus to baptism local converts. The saint was based at Dewsbury so it is possible. It is also said that the church of St. Peter is aligned to the equinoxes which may indicate some pre-christian observations at the site. In the churchyard is a venerable yew said to predate the church as well. One wonders whether the church was once dedicated to St Mary originally?
It’s Kirklees so there must be a Robin Hood association
Not far from Hartshead is Kirklees were one can find Robin Hood’s grave. Therefore it would not be surprising to hear that no only did he use the yew tree in the grounds of the church for his bow – perhaps the famed one which he shot for the location of his burial – but he drank of the spring water.
Difficult to find?
In away the well being covered by the only large tree along Lady Well Lane means it is easy to find – well in winter anyway. As such I pushed back the branches beneath. The side closest to the road appeared to be closed over and covered in earth but I had heard that the site was a trough split in two. Jumping over the fence I found the other side of the trough and this was full of water. This was in line with what has been reported about the site being purposely closed up and only opened in times of drought.
Val Shepherd in their Holy Wells of West Yorkshire and the Dales in 2002 notes that there was in 1925-7 a historical pageant enacted about the church and that the area was associated with Whitsun walks. She also draws an association with Walton Cross – a cross base – derived from O.E Wagstan meaning a ‘guide’ post and was on the boundary of Bradford/Kirklees and their may have been an association with the holy well.
It would be good to see the Lady Well be restored as stated by Shepherd but at least as long as the lane is named after it it will be remembered and easier to find!
A fragment of cream coloured cloth is a curious exhibit piece at Oxford Universities’ Pitt Rivers museum. It states:
“Votive rags from St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch near Boston Spa, West Yorkshire 1884.140.331 is an example of the votive rags that were tied to a tree near a well.”
Interestingly it also notes:
“Oddly this item was not accessioned into the Pitt Rivers Museum collections until the 1990s though it had lain in the museum for over a hundred years by then.”
This rag is perhaps unique being the only museum example of a rag taken from a rag well (considering the folklore associated with such sites I would be interested what happened to the collector). It is fitting to have this record of one of the countries most famed rag wells. For outside the famed Clootie Well and Madron Well, St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch is perhaps the most famed rag well; one which today only a memory survives perhaps –and this acquisition is interestingly the earliest reference to the site. The earliest published reference is in A Thousand miles in Wharfedale by Edmund Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm.”
A gewgaw would appear to refer to rags as the dictionary definition being a showy thing, especially one that is useless or worthless. A term which has largely fallen out of usage since the Victorian times.
Our next reference is Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells. He explicitly now refers to rags, as he notes that:
“It was usual for those who consulted the oracle at this well to make an offering there of a scrap of cloth. This was fastened to an adjoining thorn, which, being literally covered with pieces of, rag, presented a peculiar appearance.”
Harry Speight (1902) Lower Wharfedale visited St. Helen’s Well he notes in reference to a cross:
“This interesting relic of the ancient faith was discovered here, hidden among brushwood near the celebrated spring which bears St. Helen’s name. Whitaker thinks that the distinguished lady had crossed the ford of Wharfe, and that in all probability she had drank at this well, which for centuries afterwards became a very popular resort of religious votaries, particularly from the vicinity of York. Subsequently a chapel was erected on the spot, which was standing in Leland’s time, but the Reformation did away with most of these wayside oratories, and not a stone now remains.
He description of the rag custom seems to suggest it was by his time in abeyance:
Such, however, was the fascination of this time-honoured spot, that down even to our own time pilgrimages continued to be made to the holy fountain, and bits of metal or pins were thrown into the water, or ribbons were attached to the adjoining bushes (as many as forty or fifty have been seen within living memory), in propitiation of the good cause of St. Helen and Christianity. The water is beautifully soft and clear, and in former times was much resorted to as a specific for sore or weak eyes.”
By the time that C.N. Bromehead wrote an article entitled ‘Rag Wells,’ in Antiquity IX, March 1935 he visited the well he recorded that:
“There is now no well or visible spring, but from the position at the lower margin of a gravel terrace it is obvious that water would be obtained by digging a few feet; a small stream flows just east of the site.”
Yet despite its lost he noted that:
“It is curious that the hanging of rags should survive when the actual well has vanished, but the writer has visited the spot many times in the last seven years and there are always plenty of obviously recent additions. The custom is to stand facing the well (i.e., due west), preferably after sunset, wish, and then attach something torn from one’s clothing either to the big tree — wych elm — or to any of the bushes.”
Like a precursor of the lovelocks folk craze now current everywhere the author then continues to observe:
“Probably the custom is largely maintained by vagrants who frequently camp in the wood, but it also has its attraction for courting couples from the neighbouring villages!”
Certainly the final nail in the coffin was in 1940 when a munitions factory called ROF Thorp Arch was opened following compulsory purchase of the land. This made St Helen’s Lane and the Rag Well out of bounds until 1958 when the site was closed. According to Pastscape historical record that in 1958 it recorded:
“St. Helen’s Well (a Votive or Rag Well) still used as such. The Well, now dry and overgrown, has no associated masonry, and appears to have been a simple spring.”
This appears to be to the contra of the fact the munitions factory had emasculated the custom. Yet it was doubtless on the way out for by 1963, this entry had been updated to read:
“There are no visible remains of the chapel, but the contour of the ground in the vicinity of the well, suggests a natural hillock at SE 45134583 as the probable site.
However even in the 2000s ribbons could still be seen in the vicinity but whether these were placed by locals seeking a cure or local pagans keen to continue the tradition is unclear but it is interestingly that one of the most famous English rag wells lives on. I only wish that those who had attached the current rags were aware of the that original in Oxford and ensured that their examples were cotton based!
Tucked below the church in Thornton -in -Craven is a delightful little well. This is an octagonal well house over the doorway reads:
“Quod Publicæ Saluti bene vortat H: RICHARDSON RECTOR Fontem hunc salutiferum et perantiquum Tecto munivit Anno Æræ Christianæ MDCCLXIV.”
Which translates as:
“That it might prove a benefit for the health/salvation of the community, H. Richardson, Rector, built a covering for this health-/salvation-giving and most ancient font/spring, in the year 1764 of the Christian era.”
The church website informs us of the origin of these lines:
“The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, told in John chapter 4 (especially vv.4–15), offers the best context for understanding this holy well, and what it means. The subject of their dialogue is water – gradually, as she speaks with him, the woman begins to grasp that there is a deeper meaning to what Jesus is telling her. The first text is taken from his words, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is who asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.’ Moments later, she makes what is her first tentative confession of faith, ‘Lord, give me this water.’ – Domine, da mihi hanc aquam. The second text comes from the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. The gift was for everyone, ‘but only the servants knew’ of its miraculous and spiritual origin. There is nothing magic about the water from this well (though it may have healing properties) but faith and knowledge will (perhaps gradually) offer much more.”
This might have been the first time – or at least recorded – that this well had been restored. Its restorer, Henry Richardson whose well by the church website is described as:
“well was a highly imaginative work, combining a deep respect for Christian history with an Enlightenment scientific enthusiasm. His use of Latin is deliberately subtle: there is but one word in Latin for both ‘font’ and ‘spring’ and but one word for ‘health’ and ‘salvation’: he offers us, therefore, both a healthful spring and a saving font. The little building is an octagon surmounted by a circle – the two classic, symbolic shapes for a font.”
The older history of this well is unclear, but it is claimed to be Saxon but certainly there was church here in the 1150s but beyond that nothing is known, although considering the dedication of the church to St Mary it could also have been similarly dedicated.
In 2006, the community won a lottery grant to carry out the work on the well house, and to provide the curving path for wheelchair access, plus the paved area around the well and the low wall/seating area. Since its restoration early July there is an annual celebration at the well and sprinkling has been done at the well
To those reading this blog, who may not be overly familiar with the study of Holy wells and healing springs, may be familiar with the throwing of coins into springs. However, this is a relatively recent invention, before this activity, itself of course quite expensive in older times – pins were used.
Pins you may ask? Why would you have a pin on you? Well of course in those days pins were commonly used, especially by women to hold hats on and so were generally available. A glance through works such as Jones on Holy Wells of Wales and Hope’s Legendary Lore of Holy Wells produces quite a number.
The custom was quite widespread from Northumberland (Worm Well) to much of Wales where at for example at Ffynnon Enddwyn, Merioneth, Wales evil spirits were ward off by doing so. At Piran’s Well, Cornwall, Hope (1893) tells us:
“Beside a path leading to the oratory of St. Pirian’s, in the sands, there is a spot where thousands of pins may be found. It was the custom to drop one or two pins at this place when a child was baptized.”
At Bede’s Well, Jarrow Durham, as noted before ill children were brought to the well and crooked pin was put in and at St. Helen’s Well, Sefton, Lancashire would inquire about the fidelity of their lovers, dates of marriage etc by as Hope (1893) notes:
“the turning of the pin- point to the north or any other point of the compass.”
In Chepstow, Monmouthshire a well called, the Pin Well, Hope (1893) again notes:
“those who would test the virtues of its waters said an ave and dropped a pin into its depth.”
Certain days were associated with giving pins. May time, particularly at St Maddern’s Well, Madron the first Thursday in May to consult this oracle by dropping pins states Borlase (1769) in his Antiquities of Cornwall.The Wishing well of St. Roche, Cornwall it was visited on Holy Thursday or Ascension Day. At Wooler, Northumberland, the Pin Well was visited by a procession of people from the village on May Day and each would drop a crooked pin into it and made a wish. Cruelly bent pins were daily thrown into St. Warna’s Well, Isle of Scilly to wish for ship wrecks! However in the majority of cases it was for a benefit of the depositer in a positive way. Quiller Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall (18??) notes that at Menacuddle Well:
“On approaching the margin, each visitor, if he hoped for good luck through life, was expected to throw a crooked pin into the water, and it was presumed that the other pins which had been deposited there by former devotees might be seen rising from their beds, to meet it before it reached the bottom, and though many have gazed with eager expectation, no one has yet been permitted to witness this extraordinary phenomenon. “
There appears to be an association with fairies and pins. At the Pisky Well, Altarnun Hope (1893) states:
“In the basin of the well may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who have visited it out of curiosity, or to avail themselves of the virtues of its waters. A writer, anxious to know what meaning the peasantry attach to this strange custom, on asking a man at work near the spot, was told that it was done “to get the goodwill of the Piskies,” who after the tribute of a pin not only ceased to mislead them, but rendered fortunate the operations of husbandry.”
Such an association appears as far north as Cartmel, Cumbria. Stockdale, in Annals of Cartmel notes:
“Near to this holy well are two cavities in the mountain limestone rock called the ‘Fairy Church’ and the ‘Fairy Chapel,’ and about three hundred yards to the north there used to be another well, called ‘Pin Well’, into which in superstitious times it was thought indispensable that all who sought healing by drinking the waters of the holy well should, on passing it, drop a pin; nor was this custom entirely given up till about the year 1804, when the Cartmel Commoners’ Enclosure Commissioners, on making a road to Rougham, covered up this ‘Pin Well’. I have myself long ago seen pins in this well, the offerings, no doubt, of the devotees of that day.”
In many places, such as at St. Philip’s Well, near Keyingham, Yorkshire girls would caste pins for love predictions. At Brayton Barf, Yorkshire, a reason for this is given. A local woman is said to have been enchanted by the fairies looking into a well here and they appeared to explain to her their need for pins. Apparently, they used hawthorn thorns for their arrows and these were very ineffective but some of the fairy folk had noticed that the pins used by local women would be an ideal replacement. However, the fairies had no real way of obtaining the pins by enchantment and so they arranged that any women who visited the well and dropped a pin would find out the identity of their true love reflected in the water. After awaking from her enchantment she threw a pin in and she saw the face of her sweetheart and so spread the news and the fairies got their arrows! Sadly, the well is lost. However, the tradition has spread as far as Rhosgoch in Herefordshire where Hope (1893) was told:
“who haved close to the well for two years, tells me that the bottom was bright with pins — straight ones he thinks — and that you could get whatever you wished for the moment the pin you threw in touched the bottom.” ” It was mostly used for wishing about sweethearts.”
Despite this rather imaginative reason for dropping pins, why were pins dropped. Well in many cases, when the pin was bent, this action resembled that done in prehistoric times to swords deposited in ritual areas as votive objects. For example it may be significant that at some wells pricking the finger before casting it away may have had a deeper meaning. Does it represent a sacrificial aspect to giving a votive offering? So perhaps take a small pin box and caste a pin not a coin if you must.
One of the best signposted Holy wells, being signed from the town of Market Weighton! St Helen’s well is an evocative site. It is found to the south of the village lying in a wooded valley. The spring arises from a small cave and fills a triangular stone lined chamber. This structure has been linked to bathing but there is no evidence of such an activity and it may be more due to the water being used to fill the steam engines which used to pass by many years ago. Nevertheless this is a calm and charming site which has been considerably improved with a stone built well house enclosing and protecting the natural cave without detracting from the site’s ancient nature. Also below since I visited a local tree has become a considerable rag tree.
Smith (1923) notes:
“It is circular, built up with stone below and brick above, and roofed with corrugated iron, the approach being by four steps…the well like most old springs, has excellent water, bright and clear, and gives a never failing supply, the overflow finding its way to the Beck.
Also called the Quaker Well due the presence of a Quaker meeting house at the front of the house, it now apart from the roof much as Smith notes and is a charming and quiet shrine in a well manicured garden.
The site enclosed in North Cave Castle grounds, of which Smith (1923) notes:
“is situated not far from the church, and a short distance within the Park Gates of the Castle and quite near to the north side of the fishpond. Some years since it lay by the north of a road running from the Market-Place to the West End, but when the fishpond was made, the road was diverted, being brought more to the south and so away from the well.”
“The well is a clear and copious spring, and from time out of memory it is said to have given the whole place its water, and at a fire in 1875 at the Castle I am told, it supplied the water to the engine.”
“Now save the laming of cattle it is covered with a slab of stone.”
This has now been removed although a mess covers the spring head to prevent leaves entering. The area around the well has been gravelled and the well itself surrounded by stonework.
“At Great Hatfield, some half-mile from its beautiful cross, near the churchyard, and so originally not far from the south side of its former church lies the Well of St. Helen…the well flows from a bank and is covered with a roof of grass sods supported by walls. It is approached by four steps and a landing of stone facing east, its opening being at one protected by a door of which the frame only now remains.”
In 2014, on the 21st May a short service was held to re-dedicate this. In the mid 1990’s a committee was formed and the Well was reroofed. The work was completed in August 1995, the Well was dressed and a short service took place. This has happened nearly every year since.
“People would come to the Well and ask St. Helen for healing or to help with problems. The person would face East and put lace or a rag on the nearby hawthorn. This had to be done in secrecy at dawn. St. Helen’s is a rag well, (only a few remain throughout the country).”
Every month this year I am covering the veneration of water in a different item, 12 in all. This month it will be the clootie or rag. As the title suggests.
Many years ago when my interest in the subject was first piqued I visited the famous Madron Well. To be honest I was not very impressed with the well; a square concreted hole in the ground, if I remember devoid of any atmosphere. No what impressed me was what was attached to the trees; hundred and thousands of bits of cloth. I had no idea why they were there but clearly there was significance to them. Soon after I purchased the Bord’s influential Sacred Waters and all was explained.
Basically, the custom would involve the piece of rag, traditionally although rarely now, a piece of clothing, being dipped upon the well’s water rubbed on the afflicted area and then hung on the tree. As this cloth rooted, so it was thought the ailment would disappear. A word on nomenclature the word clootie commonly used for the rags is a recent spread it is originally limited to Scotland.
As far as I am aware no countrywide study has been made of the distribution of the custom, but it appears largely to divided into two blocks in the British Isles. From my research, I have found no evidence of the custom in the south –east. It is traditionally absent from all the counties south of the Thames i.e Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. Similarly there appears no record in the home countries of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire, although only two of these counties have been fully studied. As we travel westward it is encountered in Somerset with Compton Martin’s Rag Well and Cornwall as well as parts of Wales, although Devon is lacking any evidence and that for Dorset appears modern (see below).
It is absent from East Anglia, which is interesting because in Lincolnshire, a county boarding Norfolk it is frequently read about. Here there are eight seven such sites and one is simply called the Ragged Springs. For example at Utterby the:
“Holy Well, on the east side of the parish, is in repute for medicinal virtues, among the vulgar, who, after using it, tie rags on the surrounding bushes, to propitiate the genius of the spring”.
Of the traditional pre-20th century sites none continue the tradition and ironically another, probably non-holy well, the Ludwell has become the focus of a modern rag leaving tradition. Interestingly, it is recorded in Nottingham, but absent from the rest of the county. Do is there any record in Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Staffordshire.
The record in Nottingham is interesting as there is confusion between the sites of the famed St. Ann’s Well and that known as the spring is called the Rag Well. To the west only Cheshire has a record. Hole (1937) noted that at Audley End a holy tree:
“those who came to the well hung rags or other offerings upon.”
Yorkshire has a number of sites, as noted above. St. Helen’s Well, Great Hatfield near Hull has a plaque reading:
“Before the sunrise, dear Helen, I stand by this spring and intreat thee, sweat saint, good health to me bring, for with eyes firmly fixed on this ancient hawthorn, see I place thee a rag from my dress today”
An early reference of one is for one is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner which describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that
“they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts”.
Most famed Yorkshire rag well was that almost lost at Thorpe Arch, where photos from the turn of the 19th century show it festooned with torn strips. Haigh (1875) says that:
“twenty years ago the Rev E. Peacopp, curate of Healaugh, informed me that shreds of linen were to be seen attached to the bushes which overhang this well”.
Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm”.
The ritual was described as having to be done before sunrise where the cloth would be dipped in the well and then tied to the tree whilst making a wish. Of St Swithin’s Well Stanley, in his Ancient Wells of Wakefield, 1822:
“when the well was open it was near the hedge on which used to be hung bits of rag with which people had washed. These were left hanging under the delusive idea that as the rags wasted away so would the part affected, which had been washed, therewith proceed to mend and become sound”.
In Durham Jarrow’s Bede Well and in Northumberland the Lady Well, Cheswick were both rag wells. However, Scotland has three of the most famous rag or cloottie wells. The most famed is that which despite the given name of St. Curidan is better known as the Clouttie well and is the one which has attracted the greatest controversy. Found in Munlochy on the A832, here rags festoon every mm of the surrounding trees and became so unsightly that the decision was taken to remove many of them and surf the bad luck! The well is particularly visited on Beltaine, the day before the 1st of May and traditionally children were left over night to cure them much like Madron’s Well.
This distribution would suggest an association with our Celtic heritage, although that perhaps is not strengthened by the Lincolnshire sites. Another theory is that it may have been a tradition associated with the Gypsy community and certainly Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and the West Country are certainly traditional grounds. However, this does not explain the absence from areas such as the New Forest in Hampshire.
An ancient tradition?
The placing of clooties is linked to Patronal days or the Christianised pagan Gaelic-Celtic feast days: Imbolc (1st February), Beltane (1st May), Lughnasadh (1st August) and Samhain (1st November). It is possibly that the clootie was an offering to a deity at the spring.
A modern tradition
Visiting holy wells across the country one is struck by the presence of rags on a wide range of sites, many of which would not have had them before I assume. I would imagine that few of the people attaching the rags or more often ribbons are doing it for memento reasons rather than healing ones, to leave something there as a token. Yet by doing so they are continuing an ancient tradition…only spoilt by the use of modern non biodegradable fabrics. This is clearly what is going on at St. Kenelm’s Well where there are clothes on a nearby bush and similarly at St. Augustine’s Well, at Cerne which according to Thompson & Thompson (2004) book on Wells of the Mainland had:
“a few coloured ribbons hang from neighbouring trees – evidently an attempt to perpetuate its memory as a rag-well”.
And so it continues. Many wells and springs beyond the natural range appear to be growing in their clottie collections. A quick look on the internet even shows a few which I have done and I can still see the ribbon, sadly it wasn’t as biodegradable as I thought! How to confuse the researcher!!
Who was Saint Hilda?
Hilda was an Abbess of the early Christian abbey at Whitby in the 7th century. She is said to have had a retreat in the area which may have been associated with the spring and caused the church to be established there, although the current church is 18th century. A local legend says that she prayed for water and a spring arose.
Is it named after Saint Hilda?
There is some confusion over the origin of the name Hinderwell. The settlement was called Hildrewell which may possibly mean ‘elder spring’, but of course Norse influence could have affected Hilden changing it to Hildar.
Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore states that:
“Tradition says that the monks, in the journey between Whitby Abbey and Kirkham Abbey, always made this well one of their resting place.”
In the churchyard is preserved a delightful spring head enclosed in a stone chamber with coursed rusticated stone walls supporting a flat slab roof. It is reached by a flight of well worn steps
Early pictures show a pump and Hope (1893) states it was so covered. However, this was removed when it was restored in 1912 by a Hilda Palmer of Grimple Hall, when it was restored to something more fitting.
There does not appear to be any observation on St. Hilda’s patronal day on the 17th of November recorded, but the well was visited on Ascension Day as Hope (1893) notes:
“On Ascension Day the children of the neighbourhood assemble here carrying bottles containing pieces of liquorice, which they fill at the well. Hence Ascension Day is frequently termed Spanish-Water Day.”
In modern times the first Sunday in July has become a celebration of the well, although pilgrimage does occur on or near to the Saint’s day by local Catholic groups. It is during their services however that the water is the well is still blessed and taken I believe. During the July celebration well dressings are done, possibly Britain’s most northerly consisting of a triptych in July 2013 consisting of an image of the saint.
The evidence for a hermitage?
One aspect which strikes the visitor to Hinderwell is that the church and of course the spring is on a mound, an ideal shape and arrangement for a hermitage: In a way a symbolic island in a sea of wilderness. There is also good sea access from Port Mulgrave, meaning communication to Whitby where Hilda’s monastery existed.
St Hilda was associated by turning all the snakes in the area headless. They can be found in the rocks of the coast around here- we would call them ammonites.
When as lads in our clogs and our smocks we did go,
When the bright month of May did appear;
With bottles and Spanish, over Heathershelf Scout…
Then we’ve raced down the wood to the mineral spring,
Filled our bottles, and then felt as proud as a king.”
As quoted in Three Lovely Vales, in Biographies, Sketches & Rhymes by the Calder Valley Poets, ed. Sam Mellor Halifax, 1916 May Day or more precisely May Eve was often when the waters of local holy wells and springs were seen as particularly powerful in their properties. A custom linked to this was Spaw Sunday, the first Sunday in May, which was clearly a clever way to both legitimise a ‘pagan’ tradition by placing it on a Sunday and allow people not to miss work! The tradition appears to be a wholly northern custom restricted and mainly Yorkshire and Lancashire. I have found no record of it being undertaken in any counties abutting although similar customs such as sugar cupping occur in Derbyshire and far away in Oxfordshire. In Yorkshire, it now as far as I am aware only undertaken in three locations, two of which is in the Calder Vale and the other at Gunthwaite near Penistone. All the wells often appear to have one thing in common, sulphur waters, as noted in an account in a newspaper describing Gunthwaite Spa:
“Most of the pilgrims brought bottles or cups with them. They ‘supped’ the water, made faces, and filled with their bottles for friends. One old lady, after handing a cope to her daughters, asked what they thought of it. One expressively described the water as muck; and another said it tasted of rotten eggs.”
The smell of sulphur is most notable at perhaps the most famous of the three is that of Cragg Vale, which had a history at least 300 years old. The earliest reference dates from 1789 in Watson’s History of Halifax Parish, and even then the custom was to adorn the wells with boughs and flowers. According to an excellent article in the Northern Earth Journal by John Billingsley the custom is recorded from the late 19th and early 20th century in the Hebden Bridge Times. In particular he notes an account which recorded that 500 visited on May 6, 1906 and went to hear the Hebden Bridge Band playing at the White House Inn a few miles away. In the Telegraph and Argus of 7th May 1909 there was the following report on Spa Sunday:
“’Spa’ Sunday, specially favoured in point of weather, was as popular as ever on the hills surrounding the town. The Hebden Bridge Brass Band were out early, and discoursed music on the Erringden hillside. Blackstone Edge and Cragg Vale were as usual visited by hundreds of people.”
Sam Hellowell’s History of Cragg Vale (1959) records in 1913:
“It being a nice day the crowd during the afternoon was a very large one, being many hundreds in excess of last year’s and the scene was of an animated character. Testing the pungent water was much more generally observed than formerly. The scene, however, contrasted very favourably compared with the very rough and rowdy conduct of generations gone by. The local branch of the Independent Labour Party was represented with speakers. The Hebden Bridge Brass Band was also present, as was the Steep Lane Mission Band.”
The Cragg Vale Spaw Sunday died out in the 1940s probably during the War. A revival in 1987 was short lived. In the book, Martyrs, maypoles and Mayhem Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan (1994) report:
“the celebrations were revived briefly in 1987, and the well in Cragg Vale near Hebden Bridge was decorated with flowers and branches. Several Morris teams turned up, everyone took a gulp of the liquorice infused water, and a great time was had by all. In 1988 however, the first Sunday in May suffered appalling weather: the booked Morris teams cried off, and the tradition was dead before the morning was out. It remained dormant ever since.”
Consequently, the Spa spring itself became effectively lost falling like many sites in ruin and becoming forgotten out of site and mind. This was until 2009 when the site was cleared, cleaned and new steps provided with a landscaped surrounding. Then on the first May in Sunday, 1st May 2010, it was again revived. Fortunately, nothing appears to have affected the custom since its revival in 2011. The present revival consists of a procession to the spring from presently the Hinchcliffe Arms Inn with the Rippondale sword dancers and resident clergy. The spa is then blessed and water sprinkled and drunk with liquorice and cakes served.
At the same time a revival of Spaw Sunday has occurred in Midgley, the other side of Mytholmroyd. The origins of this custom is unclear, one of the organisers suggested an observance of it occurred in the 1970s and possibly 80s, but they were unaware whether this was a survival or revival. This custom consists of the dressing of the well and springheads of the small hamlet with banners and a wide range of flowers, objects and artwork. In the morning there was a perambulation around there were poems and recitations are consisted. At the end the assembled mass visit the community centre to partake in local delicacy dock pudding is served.
Also in the Calder Valley was Luddenham Dean Spa. This became a very popular event attracting brass bands, the temperance society, preachers and the speeches from the Independent Labour Party, it appeared to have declined at the second world war. Another well, was at Horley Green, Halifax, which according to Heginbottom (1988) in an article called Early Christian Sites in Calderdale, in Halifax Antiquarian Society Transactions notes that thousands people would visit it in the mid-19th century. The other side of the valley at Haworth, local people from that town, Oxenhope, Stanbury and other locales attended near Leeshaw Reservoir where a Spa Beak. According to a work by Martha Heaton’s (2006) quoted by Paul Bennett on Northern Antiquarian, the day consisted of:
“..sitting round the well, they sang songs, some bringing their musical instruments to accompany the singing. Children brought bottles with hard spanish in the bottom filling the bottle with water from the well, shaking it until all the spanish or liquorice had been dissolved. This mixture was known as ‘Poppa Lol’ and would be kept for weeks after a little sugar had been added, then it was used sparingly as medicine. The custom seems to have died out when Bradford Corporation took over the water and made Leeshaw Compensation Reservoir in 1875….It was a great day for many people, the Keighley News of May 1867 mentioned it, the report of local news reads thus: ‘A large assembly met on Spa Sunday on the moors about two miles from Haworth, and a party of musicians from Denholme performed sacred music.”
As far as I can ascertain, the furthest north Spaw Sunday site, but called Spo Sunday, was that of that of Spo well near Rochdale, Lancashire according to Taylor (2005) was also drunk with liquorice and shaken. Although, according Rowling (1976) in her Folklore of Lake District, the custom was undertaken during the first Sunday of May but appears never to have been called Spaw Sunday, being called ‘Shaking Bottle Sunday’ this may be due to the distribution of the term spa as term. Rowling records that liquorice was drunk with the water at Tolly or Keld Well, Greystoke up and until 1903. It was undertaken until the First World War, with water at Eden Lady Caves, near Great Salkeld. Indeed, a song was sung ‘The first is may is shaking day’ was sung with games undertaken on the day. Other ‘Shaking Sundays were on other days in May or Palm Sunday. It appears that the name Spaw or Spa Sunday was largely restricted to Yorkshire’s west Riding. The oldest surviving event is that of Gunthwaite in Yorkshire in the Pennines. Here the main part of the event is the attendance of the Thurstone Brass Band, who has played since the 1970s at the event. A newspaper report from 1904 recorded by Rob Wilson (1990) in his Holy Wells and Spas of South Yorkshire notes:
“It has a spring of water in which people of the district have wonderful faith. They look upon it as a sort of cure-all. But if you are to be cured you must drink of the waters on one special day in the year-the first Sunday in May. On other days the spring is just water. But on the first Sunday in May it becomes miraculously charged with all kinds of powers and properties, and people flock to it from far and near. The spa consisted of a little recess in a wall came a common rusty iron pipe, out of which the mysterious fluid was gently trickling. Below the pipe the little pool, in which pilgrims had to stand and stoop to get the precious First-of-May flavour, was muddy and objectionable looking. There was nothing tempting about the appearance of the place. But the worse the look, possibly the better the result. The cup, provided by a thoughtful Rural District Council, was chained to the wall, but was all battered and worn, dirty and shorn of everything that makes a drinking vessel attractive. All the pilgrims except myself, seemed to know the cup, and came prepared with drinking vessels of their own..the wall and pipe had not been there long. Formerly the water was obtained from the spring as it came out of the ground by the little stream among the rushes and rough undergrowth bordering the road. But the first of May water got mixed with the other water in the stream and lost its value. So it had been piped to the wall. An old gentleman did not approve of such radical changes; and did not think the water so good now that it came through a pipe as it was formerly.”
The account suggests that the attendees could get rowdy, returning to his old gentlemen the author writes:
“Then his mind carried him back long years to the time when there used to be great rejoicing on the first Sunday of May. ‘There used to be a band out here, and brave going-on, sure enough’ said the old gentleman, with a faraway look, as though he could see before him the crowd and dancing and the revels that disturbed the quietude of Gunthwaite Spa on the first Sunday in May years ago. The band was done away with a good many years ago, he said regrettably, because the people began to get too rowdy…
The spectre of alcohol, the opposite of the temperance movement’s stance at Cragg, was raised:
“Some of the young men however gulped the water down in big quantities. But they highly diluted it. They had come out armed with flasks of spirit, and horns, in which they mixed whisky and water. The two together seemed to make a highly attractive beverage; but such proceeding spoilt the charm of the mystery of the place. They degraded the water to a very commonplace level. Having partaken of the water, people sat about the banks to watch the other tasters, and to enjoy the faces they made. I was assured that some people were at the water early in the morning; long before breakfast.”
Rob Wilson (1990), notes that the band had returned and ‘little had changed in the 90 years or so since the account was written’. Today, the band plays from 2 onwards at the reservoir whilst refreshments of another kind, cakes, are available nearby. Hopefully these surviving traditions will continue and blossom and others will be resurrected.
An account of Spaw Sunday 2013 posted on traditionalcustomsandceremonies.wordpress.com at the end of the month.
Many thanks to John Billingsley of Northern Earth for his help and the warm welcome of the people of Cragg Vale and Midgley and http://megalithix.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/haworth-moor-spas
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.