Welcome to episode 2 of season 8 of the Plodcast, the nature and countryside podcast from Countryfile Magazine. This season is all about water: rivers, lakes, the sea and, in this episode, holy wells.
Holy wells are a magical feature of the Welsh landscape – places where people have found dependable clean water and made offerings since ancient times. But over time, many have been forgotten or overlooked in the modern landscape.
So in this episode, we head into the hills north of Pontypool to try to track down a well that has been used since Roman times – and trace its fascinating story through history. Plus, listen on for listeners’ letters and emails in the Plodcast postbag.
Search is on to find Derby’s original Becket Well ‘before it is too late’
History experts also believe early Derby remains could still be under Debenhams building
It may not be quite on a par with finding Richard III buried under a car park but re-discovering a 12th century holy well linked to St Thomas Becket could be very important to Derby.
But concerns are growing among historians that valuable early medieval archaeology, including the original Becket Well, could be lost if plans to regenerate the Becketwell and Duckworth Square areas of the city go-ahead without proper underground exploration.
Dr Joan D’Arcy, of Derbyshire Archaeological Society, believes that a more extensive examination of the area needs to be carried out rather than the current desk-based assessment of the site.
A planning application has been submitted by St James Securities, which includes the demolition of the former Debenhams and the Central United Reformed Church, under which Dr D’Arcy believes there is a “high possibility” of valuable archaeological evidence of life in Derby from as early as the fifth or sixth centuries through to the 10th century.
The two buildings would be demolished to make way for 342 build to rent apartments in two blocks – one which would be 19 storeys, containing 246 apartments over a ground floor café and restaurant.
The other nine storey building would house 96 apartments, and includes plans for a convenience store underneath fronting onto Victoria Street.
There will also be access, car parking, servicing and a new public square created adjacent to the apartment blocks and on the site of the former church. Work to demolish the former Debenhams building has already begun and Dr D’Arcy believes its cellar could hold some valuable archaeological information.
An outline application has also been submitted on the hybrid plan for the demolition of the remaining buildings, except for some properties in Green Lane, and the building of a phased mixed-use development.
But Dr D’Arcy’s main concern is for the probable 13th century Becket Well – after which the area is named – and which was last seen in 1962 when the area was levelled to build Duckworth Square.
She said: “Although it is Grade II-listed , it was partially destroyed but hopefully still lies under the surface on the eastern boundary of the Square, adjacent to Becket Well Lane.
“Research has shown that the well was in fact a holy well dedicated to St Thomas Becket and probably constructed within years of his death in 1170.”
In 1889, an investigation into the well was carried out by members of the Derbyshire Archaeological Society.
It was cleaned out and excavated. They discovered that the well was on two levels , with a seat or ledge included, and best known as a chamber well. Originally, water would would have been collected in a jar or bottle and used as a holy or curative well before it was attached to Derby’s water supply.
A holy well often had a bathing bench and sometimes a canopy as raised over the well for protection and it is likely that this one was founded by Abbot Albinus of Darley Abbey in about 1173.
Dr D’Arcy said: “Derby was on a pilgrimage route and already had a couple of other wells – Normanton Road and St Alkmund’s – and it was possible there was a chapel to St Thomas a Becket where the Central United Reformed Church now stands.
“There have also been claims that the well’s water “cured eyes”.
“The well is clearly marked on a town Board of health map in 1852 and the 1883 OS map. There are rows of terraced houses which are historic interest.
“In 1962, a stone pyramid that head been erected over the well was removed from the site and found its way to a garden in Kirk Ireton.”
Dr D’Arcy thinks that originally, the depth of the well was 14ft 6ins and following a site visit in September this year, it was estimated that during ground levelling to build Duckworth Square about 6ft 6ins of earth was removed.
She said: “So the greater part of the well should have survived.
“In responding to the planning application, the Council for British Archaeology advocates an investigation at the earliest opportunity.
“We agree that as this development is being marketed as Becketwell, it is absolutely necessary to determine how much of the well remains in situ.
The Regeneration Of Becketwell
“If it is still in existence, then there is a strong case for its restoration together with some form of designation.
“This isn’t quite Richard III under a car park but a 12th century holy well attached to St Thomas Becket is still a rare survival.
“Its rediscovery and restoration would help redress the grave mistake committed by the town in the 1960s when it allowed the destruction of a listed structure.
“So we would like to see a pre-determination, above ground, archaeological survey which includes test pitting and an open excavation of the well-site.
“We also suggest that a big development like this is worth a site visit as well as a desk-top survey and an inquiry at the local studies library at the very minimum.”
The developers have been responding to comments made during the consultation on the project and have already proposed some aesthetic changes to the main towers.
They have also commented on the archaeology criticisms and said that “areas of potential interest lie beyond the phase one boundary”, in other words they say the current development will not affect the potential site of Becket Well.
And a Derby City Council spokesman added: “Archaeology is one of the many facets for consideration in this part detailed, part outline scheme. It is a material consideration.
“The site of the well is in the outline part of the scheme so can be protected during the development of future phases. It is not affected by the proposed development on phase one.”
But Dr D’Arcy said: “I am concerned that the demolition contractors cabins are now parked on Duckworth Square and untold damage could be done as long as this well is not found and protected. We need to find it before it is too late.”
Please support and sign the petition from the Gazette…
Should ‘aspirational’ houses be built on Holy Well?
CAMPAIGNERS have slammed plans to build two ‘aspirational dwellings’ on a small parcel of land near Wotton, which contains an ancient well.
Until recently, the land has been used as a large kitchen garden.
Residents say that the plans do not comply with the terms of the local plan, as they are outside the settlement development limit, would be detrimental to the scenic beauty of the landscape in the Cotswold’s AONB, and would have a negative impact on the historic environment.
Paul Thomas, who lives in the hamlet, said: “This is a development which will do nothing to address local housing need, while destroying the green space at the centre of Holywell which has existed, at least, since the end of the 19th century.
“There would no longer be a focal point to the hamlet, it would just be a clump of houses.
“It also looks like the historical well, which gives the hamlet it’s name, will be covered over.”
Now archaeologists are lending their weight to the campaign to save the site.
TV archaeologist Mark Horton, who lives in Wotton, said: “It’s an outrageous application.
“Looking at an early OS map there is also a spring there and it’s highly likely to have been a votive site for a very long time.”
And in a letter to the Stroud District Council planning department, Gloucestershire County Council archaeologist Charles Parry wrote: “The well may be a feature of considerable antiquity with religious associations. If that is the case the well would represent a heritage asset of high significance and interest.
“I recommend that in advance of the determination of this planning application the applicant should provide the results of a programme of archaeological desk-based assessment and field evaluation which should describe the significance of any archaeological remains contained within the application site.”
A spokesperson for Stroud District Council said: “The historic environment above and below ground is a material planning consideration and Stroud District Council will be seeking specialist advice on the matter from Gloucestershire County Council’s Senior Archaeological Officer and in-house Conservation specialists.
“Any impact on the environment and/or landscape will also be a key consideration for officers, and will be fully documented in an officer report.
“With regard to housing need, the starting point will be to look at the principle of development. As the site falls outside of any defined settlement limits, officers will balance any other material planning considerations when formulating a recommendation.”
To comment on the plans visit
bit.ly/2RAMCWY by February 2.
Talks this year
I shall be talking at…..
Dreaming Bread and Skyrie Stanes: A Celebration of Scottish Folk Magic and Community Traditions
A day celebrating Scottish folk magic and community traditions hosted by
the Taibhsear Collective who are launching their album, Tales of The
The day features presentations by Jess Smith, Dr Julian Goodare, Claire Hewitt, Dr Valentina Bold and Ross Parish, with workshops on traditional
herbal use, mead-making, folk magic, traditional crafts and much more.
I’ll be discussing customs and traditions of Holy wells with a special focus on Nottinghamshire
International Dowsing Day 5 May
Sacred Springs and Wells
So what’s the difference between a Spring and a Well? In modern-day language, a Spring is a source of water which effuses from the land… or any other substrate: a Well is a hole in the ground, from where water is drawn. However, when we examine the etymology of each word, the Old English word for ‘to spring, to rise, to gush’ was “wiellan”. In Old Norse it was “vella”.
Thirteenth Century, Old High German describes any source of water as “sprung”. So, it would appear that in many respects, the two words are interchangeable.
During the last 3 years I have been following and mapping two Telluric Energy Lines inland from the East Yorkshire coast. During this adventure, I have made use of several Ordnance Survey Maps to plot various points of interest along the Lines. Clearly marked on all the maps are springs and wells, some even showing the names given to them. Research into these sources of water proved extremely interesting and revealed that each had a history intertwined with local, ritual, religious and rural custom; sometimes a combination of all four.
It was no coincidence that I was to attend a presentation, given by Claire Heron at the 2017 Mysterious Earth Conference. The topic described the purpose and nurture of Sacred Springs and Wells. Nor could it have been a coincidence that whilst integrating the positions of ancient settlements along the course of the Gyspey Race, a water course of varying size which traverses the Yorkshire Wolds and can in parts disappear underground for years only to burst back to life through many springs; discover that it had not one but two sources!
I will share with you an example of one of my visits: to the small village of Hapham, once an important focal point for trade and commerce in East Yorkshire.
St. John’s Well is a roadside spring on the outskirts of Harpham and is documented to have existed in the early 700’s AD when, then just plain John of Harpham, a monk, sought to slake the thirst of the army of the Anglian Prince Athelstan who were en route to the banks of the river Humber to engage Anlaf The Dane and his invading Norsemen.
In true ‘dowser-like’ fashion, John struck his staff into the ground and hey presto “a fount of pure water flowed freely.” After John died in 721, eventually retiring as Bishop of Beverley, he was Canonized and the well took his saintly name. Qualities variously attributed to the water of the well are, a cure for headaches and eye infections and the ability to calm wild beasts!
A stone dome, possibly an old font from the local church, was added in 1856 with access to the water being from a small arch facing East.
Unfortunately, in 1998, one of the churchwardens decided the well required renovation and the whole structure was strengthened and turned 90 degrees to face the road. Alas, this was a great mistake as gradually the flow of water decreased and now the well is dry. Local belief that the waters of the well benefitted from the early morning Sun shining into it, may have been vindicated.
International Dowsing Day 2018 falls on a Saturday. This is a perfect opportunity for individuals, groups, families and friends to explore the sacred wells and springs in their locality and share their experiences by sending short reports to the BSD.
As International Dowsing Day has now grown from a brilliant concept in 2011 to a permanent fixture within dowsing communities’ calendars in Ireland, France, Scandinavia, Holland, Canada, USA, India, Australia and probably other Countries who we have, as yet, not heard from, it would be a huge opportunity to compare and explore the folklore and traditions of other cultures and celebrate those qualities
Sikhs to get Amrat Jal from Hassanabal starting next month
LAHORE: Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) Chairman Muhammad Siddiqul Farooq told media on Sunday that Sikhs will be able to get Amrat Jal from Sarover Sahib Hassanabdal starting next month.
He said that it was long desired by followers of Sikh religion to receive the sacred water (Amrat Jal) from Hassanabdal.
“Two water treatment plants are being installed along with other arrangements for making available water,” he said, adding that Amrat Jal had not been available even at the Gurdwara Janam Asthan Nankana Sahib for 67 years. He said that the sacred well had now been cleaned and water from it would begin to be released soon.
He added that there had been a shortage of washrooms and accommodation facilities at Nankana Sahib, which is currently being addressed through the construction of new rooms and washrooms.
Moreover, Farooq said that four yatra promoters had been registered and efforts were being made to register more so as to facilitate yatrees (pilgrims) coming from all over the world.
The ETPB chairman said that all these efforts were being made in keeping with Islamic teachings which advocate harmony and tolerance.
New Pilgrimage route involving holy wells
New pilgrimage route to be launched from East Lothian
13 October 2017
Image copyrightChurch of Scotland
A new pilgrimage route that travels through coastal scenery from North Berwick in East Lothian to Lindisfarne is to be launched.
The Forth to Farne Way will take modern-day pilgrims along pathways and through places linked to Christianity’s earliest days in Scotland.
Celtic missionary saints associated with the route include St Aidan, St Baldred, St Cuthbert and St Ebba.
It is one of five Pilgrim Ways under development just now in Scotland.
Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, patron of the Scottish Pilgrim Routes Forum and former Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland, will formally open the new route at a service in St Mary’s Parish Church, Whitekirk, on Sunday at 11:00.
Rev Joanne Evans-Boiten, minister of Athelstaneford, Whitekirk and Tyninghame, who initiated the effort to develop the new route, said a group of people would walk a section of the route from Whitekirk to North Berwick after the official opening ceremony.
She said: “We are very excited to be launching the new route on Sunday and everyone is welcome to join us on the walk.
“We will make sure that everyone gets back to their car.”
Whitekirk is one of many sites along the route that attracted pilgrims in the late Middle Ages, she said.
She added: “Thousands of people came to Whitekirk because of a very famous holy well.
“That is why we have such a large church in such a small place.
“The story is that Agnes Countess of Dunbar had sustained injuries defending Dunbar castle when it was under siege. She visited a hermit living near Whitekirk and he told her to go to the holy well and drink the water.
“After visiting the well the Countess was healed and she went on to put up a shrine here that became famous throughout Europe.”
In mediaeval times pilgrims travelled the coastal route from Lindisfarne to St Andrews crossing the Firth of Forth by ferry from North Berwick.
The 72-mile pilgrim route follows parts of three well-marked designated footpaths: the John Muir Way, and the Berwickshire and Northumberland coastal paths.
Nick Cooke, secretary of the Scottish Pilgrim Routes Forum, said: “The route goes through some very important places with a strong pilgrimage heritage, from Whitekirk itself to Coldingham Priory which was one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in Scotland in its day.
“The steering group volunteers have done tremendous work, but there is a lot more to be done.
“The next stage will be to develop waymarking and interpretation to tell the stories of these special places as well as provide accommodation for pilgrim walkers making this journey.”
Two talks next week – please consider supporting and attending if local!
Claire Heron admin on FBs Holy Wells and Sacred Springs is giving a talk on Sacred Waters, Holy Wells and Springs at Westmorland Dowsers this coming Saturday 27th May at 10.30am in Shap Memorial Hall. Followed by a field visit in the afternoon. £6 members and £8 non members. All Welcome! https://sites.google.com/site/westmorlanddowsers/
On Sunday 22nd May, I am discussing Holy Wells and healing springs, I am up against Morris Dancing, food fermentation and whistle making so wish me luck!
Ritual “Litter” Redressed Workshop, 5th May 2017 Bayfordbury Campus, University of Hertfordshire Programme
Details of a conference I am presenting at #rituallitter
PANEL 1 10:25 Tiina Aikas, ‘Contemporary offerings at Sámi sacred places in Taatsi, Finland’
10:50 R. B. Parish, ‘‘Votive’ offerings and healing wells: A historical and modern perspective’
11:05 Lindsay Fricker, ‘British Seaside Piers: An archaeological perspective’
11:35 Refreshment break
PANEL 2 11:55 Sonja Hukantaival, ‘Contemporary deposits in buildings and ships – who cares?’
12:15 Melissa Beattie, ‘Eight Years [G]on[e]: A Study of the Torchwood Memorial in Cardiff Bay’ (video)
12:30 Sara Hannant, Title TBC
12:45 Paul Graves-Brown, ‘Celebrity Veneration: The creation of spontaneous street shrines and tribute archives’
13:15 Lunch (to be provided)
14:15 Delun Gibby, ‘Sacred Circle: Contemporary ritual deposits at Gors Fawr, Pembrokeshire’
14:30 Debora Morretti, ‘Folk Litter on Display: The Ferretti Collection’
14:45 Tõnno Jonuks, ‘Sacred Rubbish: Cleaning sites of contemporary deposits’
15:20 Refreshment break
15:40 Ian Marshman, ‘Diverse deposits and contemporary connections at Lincolnshire’s historic sites’
15:55 Andy Foley, ‘Secrets of the Smithy’
16:10 Keynote: Christine Finn, ‘Leaving More than Footprints. Modern Artifacts and Public Interventions at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, US, and in Kent UK’
16:30 Discussion and conclusions
17:00 Mini-bus pick up, return to de Havilland campus, Hatfield
‘Cursed’ Medieval Well Found in England
By Rossella Lorenzi, Seeker | November 3, 2016 07:31am ET
Records suggest a strange death occurred at St. Anne’s Well, which was found on a private farm near Liverpool, in the United Kingdom.
Credit: Jamie Quartermaine
A Medieval well that was once believed to wash away sins, while healing eye and skin diseases has been recovered in England. Legend has it that the well was also cursed and records indicate a strange death occurred there.
St. Anne’s Well was found on the lands of a private farm on the border between the townships of Rainhill and Sutton St Helens, near Liverpool, UK.
According to Historic England Heritage, which commissioned the excavation, “the well had become completely filled with earth due to ploughing.”
“When we first got to the well we found that there was very little indication of it on the surface, but after excavation it was found to be in reasonable condition,” Jamie Quartermaine, an archaeologist who supervised the dig, told Discovery News.
The well was built of local sandstone blocks and consisted of a shallow square basin with two steps leading down into the bottom.
“The fabric of the well is consistent with a Medieval date,” Quartermaine said.
The archaeologist noted that St. Anne is quite commonly associated with holy wells.
“This well was probably a late Medieval foundation as the cult of St. Anne did not become widespread in England until after the end of the 14th century,” Quartermaine said.
The dating is important. Alexandra Walsham, professor of modern history at Cambridge’s Trinity College, told Seeker that “a Medieval past for many healing wells was assumed or even invented by later antiquaries, especially in the 19th century.”
After descending the steps, pilgrims submerged themselves in the pool, which was about 4 feet deep. Water seeped in from below the floor, while a stone conduit, now lost, took water from the overflow of the well, which measures 6.5 feet by 6.5 feet.
According to Historic England Heritage, local legend suggests St. Anne’s Well was associated with a nearby priory of about 12 monks, which was lost during Henry VIII’s draconian dissolution of the monasteries.
The legend said the priory held an extensive estate from which the monks had an income. The story goes that St. Anne had bathed in the well, which was reputed to have healing powers for eye and skin afflictions.
“The well attracted numbers of pilgrims, necessitating the building of a small three-roomed structure around the well and the custodianship of two of the monks,” Quartermaine said.
According to local folklore, a dispute rose in the 16th century about boundaries and access to the well between the prior, Father Delwaney, and Hugh Darcy, the estate manager of the neighboring landowner.
One day, when the two stood nearby the well, Darcy predicted the prior would not be in position for much longer. Two days later the king’s commissioners arrived and took possession of the priory and the well.
Father Delwaney promptly understood Darcy’s role in the action as he was clearly known to the commissioners.
“With teeth tightly clenched, and his face white with suppressed passion,” the prior hissed out his curse, according to a 1877 report on local legends in the St. Helens Leader.
Darcy would be dead within a year and a day, Delwaney predicted. He then collapsed and died himself.
A series of disgraces fell on Darcy: three months after the curse, his only son died of a mysterious illness. He suffered financial losses and “plunged recklessly into dissipation,” according to the St. Helens Leader.
One night, after heavy drinking at a tavern, he disappeared.
“The search began. Nothing was seen until they came to the well, in which Darcy was found lying dead, his head crushed in,” the St. Helens Leader reported.
Despite the grim legend, the well continued to be revered even after the dissolution, and people immersed themselves in the waters until the 19th century.
To protect the structure from damage by farm machinery, new wooden edging will be installed.
“We have worked with the farmers to ensure this important holy well survives long in to the future,” Tamsin Cooke, a Historic England Heritage at Risk representative, said.
A new free App has been released to tell the story of St Agnes Holy Well in Cothelstone. The App is the culmination of 14 month’s work led by Debbie McKenna and Becky Wright of New Leaf Life Design in partnership with Bridgwater College’s Entry to Land Based Studies students and Alex Roland of YourITNow.
The project, which was funded by Bishops Lydeard Parish Council, The Heritage Lottery and New Leaf Life Design, came about after Becky found a small Well located on an OS map. The Well was very overgrown and in a state of disrepair when she finally found it and having spoken to the landowner she gained permission to clean up the area.
On researching the Well further it was found to be Grade 2 listed and had in fact been considered one of the most beautiful Wells in the County in its day. The story of how this all came about and the painstaking restoration is all told on the App.
Alex and Becky’s share the same passion for conservation which led them to form this unique partnership, and it is this partnership which has resulted in the first App ever to be created by young people to support a heritage project.
Students from Bridgwater College were given the opportunity to be part of the whole restoration process, learning about natural stone masonry and historic building restoration work. They took part in two projects, one based around Art led by Artist, Lucy Large and the other to help develop creative writing using the folklore surrounding the Well. This was led by Storyteller Chris Jelly. Both these projects can be viewed and heard on the App.
In May this year, the Well was officially opened with a Well Dressing Ceremony and there is a video of this occasion filmed by Dan Gale available via the App.
Iain Porter, Development Officer Quantock Hills AONB Service said, “This is a wonderful example of a community led project which has restored and increased our understanding of the heritage of the Quantock Hills and Cothelstone in particular. Becky’s enthusiasm and the engagement of the other partners have ensured the success of this project and the conservation of the Well into the future.”
The App has original music on it by Jon Guard and a unique sound walk which transports the listener back to the Well and the sounds around it.
Andrew Hopkins, Marketing and Visitor Centre Manager for Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset Council said, “We are delighted to welcome this initiative and look forward to promoting this to visitors. The Holy Well is already cited as a Culture Secret of Somerset.”
Parish and County Councillor for the area, Mike Rigby, was set on supporting the project as soon as Becky brought it to his attention. He said, “It’s fabulous to see forgotten parts of our heritage uncovered and restored by public-spirited individuals and organisations. Download the App and take a trip to the well.”