A severed head, a mermaid and a bell – the curious waterlore of Marden, Herefordshire Part One

Down a lane away from the village in quiet solitude is St Ethelbert’s church at Marden. It is a church associated with a saintly legend and a location of particular interest for anyone concerned in water lore; for two pieces of local legend are recorded both with familiar motifs. Perhaps the most familiar one is associated with the strange find in a carpeted room to the left of the entrance. Here sadly dry is St. Ethelbert’s Well. The earliest record is John Duncombe 1804 Collections for a History of Herefordshire

“At the west end of the nave, defended by circular stonework, is a well about ten inches in diameter, about four feet below the pavement of the church, aspring supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of Ethelbert was first interred…. This spring is said to have been held in great veneration from the circumstance of the water retaining its purity, when overflowed by the stream of the Lugg, however muddy or impure.”

Charles Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells also records:

MARDEN: ST. ETHELBERT’S WELL. THERE is a well in the church of Marden, Herefordshire. It is near the west end of the nave, defended by circular stone-work, about ten inches in diameter, and enclosing a spring, supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of King Ethelbert was first interred, and is called St. Ethelbert’s Well (Notes and Queries, 3 S., viii. 235).”

Jonathan Sant in his 1994 The Healing Wells of Herefordshire notes:

“Formerly to be seen at the west end of the nave, St. Ethelbert’s Well has recently been swallowed up by an extended vestry where it can now be seen incongruously surrounded by carpeted floor. The octagonal stone well-top is apparently late Victorian but the square top within the shaft below is doubtless older. Needless to say, the table which has been built over it is very modern and prevents small children from falling down the well”

The well is much as Sant describes although there have been recent talks of an improvement to make a more appropriate structure although that could possibly ruin this strange well. He records water in it as well, it was dry when I examined it in April of this year.

What is particularly strange is that once the wooden lid is removed this is a deep shaft well. Very few holy wells are such deep shafts, the majority being shallow springheads. Perhaps this suggests that this could as Sant suggests provide pure water even when the river was in flood. Its depth may also suggest a great age indicating how the ground level has risen as the years have built up more sediment. The church guide suggests it had a healing tradition but I am unable to find their source, similarly they claim the well and church were a place of pilgrim, likely but again no written evidence. Current pilgrims have thrown coins in the well as can be seen.

The legend of St Ethelbert’ or Æthelberht’s Well

Overlooking the village of Marden are the scant remains of Sutton Walls now a tree covered hillfort. Here local tradition record was the royal vill or sort of temporary villa of the great Offa of Mercia the scene of the saint’s murder.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he was captured whilst visiting his bride to be Ælfthyth. Richard of Cirencester records that Offa’s queen Cynethryth convinced Offa that Æthelberht should be killed, although there is no evidence why. Although it was likely political as Æthelberht was King of the Angles and Mercia had domination over East Anglia and would be keen to stop any possible claimant under control.

One legend tells that he sat upon a chair with no seat a trap door of sorts, the whole being covered by a cloth and that he fell down the hole, a deep pit, his head being removed to ensure that he was dead. Another tells how he was smothered in his bed clothes. All accounts record his beheading, but some say that this was done in Offa’s presence. The body being hastily buried with the head beside the river below.

Discovery of the body and formation of the well

The legend is told in a panel upon the 2008 shrine to the saint in Hereford Cathedral but it is absent in the first version of the story which is restricted to the shaft of light subsequent tellings have mentioned the spring.

Issues with the legend

Considering the well head’s location and the church’s remote location it is more than likely that the church was placed here because of the well. However, does this make the well date from St. Ethelbert? Although, one would not miss to pour water upon the county’s famed legend, there are concerns that it might.

Hagiographers will notice that the religious features his martyrdom closely resemble that associated with the legend of St. Kenelm. This is best summarised by Edith Rickert’s 1905 article The Old English Offa Saga. II in Modern Philology Vol. 2, No. 3:

“At this point, however, mention must be made of another legend, that of St. Kenelm, which shows a curious relationship to the story of Ethelbert. The resemblances are these: a) Each saint, by the ambition and malice of a wicked kinswoman, was treacherously lured to his death and beheaded.’ b) The murderess in each case perished miserably by super natural intervention.2 c) Each saint had divine foreknowledge of his death in a dream or vision in which a beautiful tree was cut down and he himself was turned into a bird and flew up a column of light to heaven.”

Overall it suggests perhaps that the St. Ethelbert legend was a transfer from St. Kenelm (or vica versa) but if it was a concoction why? The other legend that of the Mermaid may give us a suggestion why….but we can discuss this in a future post.

The Lady Well at Wilncote

“Just over the boundary, in the parish of Wilcote, is an old well of beautiful clear water, surrounded by a wall, with stone steps going down to it. It is called the Lady’s Well, and on Palm Sunday the girls go there and take bottles with Spanish juice (liquorice), fill the bottles, walk round the well”

Violet Mason, SCRAPS OF ENGLISH FOLKLORE, XIX. Oxfordshire Folklore, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1929), pp. 374-384

My first visit to the Lady or Lady’s Well at Fincote was on a misty cold December walking down from the village I was struck by the old gnarled elms which lined the way to the well and the feel of an ancient processional route to it. Back then in the 90s I was unaware of the folk customs associated with it as hinted above.

The well itself is a small affair enclosed as stated above in a high wall. The gate was locked and so sadly I could not access the water directly. However, it followed from beneath the wall and nearby was what appeared to be a trough or perhaps even a bath half sunk into the ground. It is known that the water was used by Wilcote Grange for water and filled a series of ponds nearby now gone. Interestingly there is a Bridewell Farm nearby so was the well originally dedicated to St. Bridget or the pagan Bride? What the well lacks in structure is made up by its association with the curious custom noted above which existed until recently and may still do locally. On the Finstock Local History website it is recorded:

Mrs. Ivy Pratley, describes the making of the Spanish Water. “On the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday, we children would crush humbug sweets and white peppermints together and to this we would add some pieces of chopped liquorice stick, the mixture was then added to a bottle of water and we would sit around the room shaking the bottles until it had dissolved”.

The correspondent notes that:

“This bottle of liquid was drunk the following day while walking to Ladywell. They also carried with them, in a paper bag, some of the dry mixture, which was mixed with water from the well to drink on the way home. Early on Sunday afternoon the walkers would set off, one group using the footpath by the Plough Inn and another group near the top of High Street using the path to the left of the road about 50 yards east of Gadding Well. The groups then merged to follow the path through Wilcote Field Longcut or the Longcut as it was known locally. Most of the girls were given a new straw hat for the occasion and these were filled with primroses and voilets on the way through Sumteths Copse. They then crossed the field to the front of Wilcote Manor and followed a route past St. Peter’s Church to the Ash Avenue which leads directly to Ladywell.”

The custom was still current when Violet Mason in 1929 recorded it but little beknown to her it was soon to disappear. The Finstock Local History society record that it died out at the outbreak of war in 1939. However, Janet Bord in her excellent Holy Wells in Britain a guide (2008) received correspondence which suggests later. She notes:

“The one-time vicar of Wilcote, J.C.S Nias, informed me that when he first went there in 1956, ‘numerous members of county families used to go to that well in Palm Sunday with jam jars containing crushed peppermint and (I believe) liquorish.”

Interesting the vicar then goes on to suggest what might have been the original reason for the Spanish water:

“they pour water from the well on to this mixture which, they believed, would then be a specific for certain ailments during the following year.”

Another correspondent noted:

“Local historian Margaret Rogers noted in a letter to me in 1984 that ‘local people do not any longer visit it on Palm Sunday’ she added; Occasionally one elderly lady visits it, but way back in 1934 there used of a substantial number of people going down on lam Sunday to make liquorice water.”

Bord’s correspondent may give another reason for the custom’s demise:

“Quite a few elderly members of the village remember with indignation that they did not get Sunday school stamps for going down there.”

Now that’s a way to kill a custom off! Perhaps some people still make their private pilgrimage but whatever there is something otherworldly about the Lady Well. It’s a recommended walk.

 

An abecedary of Sacred Springs of the World: Canada- the Harrison Hot Springs

Harrison is a typical Canadian settlement. Clinging to the wilds, remote, a mixture of desolate and delightful. Full of welcoming people and for following of this blog a curious water source which is the very reason for its existence!

Ancient sacred springs

The Harrison area is an area rich in ancient First Nation relics. The local tribe here are the Sts;Ailes (Chehalis) who established themselves along the Harrison River. The spring was called Waum Chauk and said to have supernatural properties and had healing properties if drunk. The nature of their veneration is unclear but as a tribe their association with the ‘mythical’ Sasquatch is an interesting side observation especially as I visited on their Sasquatch Day.

I spoke at length to the elder of the Sts’Ailes on Sasquatch Day who informed me that they no longer bless the source of the Harrison hot springs but another spring further around the lake edge. Water was still important to their community and the morning of the Sasquatch Day, the tribe’s holy man had blessed the lake water in a private ceremony.

Two hot springs

There are two springs nearby. One which produces potash whose temperature is 40 °C, and presumably that is the one which flows rather unannounced a few yards from the larger and more obvious sulphur spring. It’s temperature is 65 °C and this is very noticeable. The spring produces 1300 ppm of dissolved mineral solids which is the highest of any mineral spring.

From the hotel a path leads to the left around the side of the lake and beneath the dense mossy woods. It reaches the source of the spring and stops. This source of the sulphur spring is like one would have imagined Bath’s sacred spring looked. The spring arising to fill in a large pool, which produced a considerable amount of steam even on a hot June day. The actual source is enclosed in an odd concrete chamber flowing out to one side. Huge plumes of hot steam arise from it and the smell of sulphur is considerable. In the pool nearby are small fishes who appear to be making nests of pebbles, the temperature whilst not as hot as 65 °C perhaps, is still very warm and these species clearly are adapted to the warm waters.

European discovery

Discovery by the European settlement happened when three miners from the Cariboo gold field capsized in the lake and should have frozen to the their death but surprisingly they lived – kept alive by the warm waters of the town’s titular springs. Whatever the truth behind the story is unclear but soon after the discovery commercial use was being investigated.

A Joseph Armstrong purchased the 40 acres of land around the spring in 1873 and set about building a spa complex. He named the well St Alice’s Well, a pun based on his daughter’s name and possibly on the original First nation Sts’Ailes. He separated the spring from the lake, which was thought to have been impossible by engineers and by 1886 St. Alice Hotel was built which could accommodate 50 guests. The building was burnt down in 1905 and the present Harrison Hot Springs hotel built nearby.

 

 The Modern spa complex

The hot spring water is piped to two locations. One the public baths and the other the Harrison Hot Springs resort. The Harrison Hot Springs Hotel was opened in May 1926 by a Belgium emigre Mme Marguerite de Guesseme. She stayed until 1943 when the building was taken over for the war effort. Here six baths of differing temperatures are established. If you visit Harrison, a stay at the hotel is a must. The hot spring is directly piped to a central bath of which a sign reads not to sit in there for more than 10 minutes. Despite this a number of people were ignoring this and staying for too long. The middle temperature pool was the best and one could sit there for hours looking on the snowcap mountains ahead and listening to the cries of wild animals in the surrounding woods – or perhaps Sasquatch.

A Hebrew holy well? The mysterious Synagogue Well of Frodsham, Cheshire

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Lying in a public park in a small town in Cheshire is a curiously named holy well. My first attempt to find the site in the 1990s was unsuccessful but it is reassuring that a return in 2014 not only found the park it lies in being much improved but now there were signposts to the well.

The Synagogue Well is perhaps uniquely named in the country a point I shall refer to later. Charles Hope in his 1893 notes:

The Synagogue Well, evidently one of great antiquity, and, before an attempt was made to improve it, of most picturesque appearance, is in the grounds of Park Place, Frodsham, late belonging to Joseph Stubs, Esq.”

Hope’s claim that it was of great antiquity however does not appear to easy to substantiate. However it certainly attracted antiquarian interest, William Beaumont in his 1888 An Account of the Ancient Town of Frodsham in Cheshire records in comparison to a similar site in the county:

“Such a fount there is at Frodsham, called ‘The Synagogue Well,’ which sends forth waters as copious and as limpid as that once frequented by Numa. It seems as if such a fount was necessary near an ancient castle; for as this fount rises close to the site of Frodsham Castle, so at the foot of Beeston Castle there is a similar spring. They both spring from the living rock, and both have a large square stone basin to receive the surplus water as it flows away.”

A poet’s romantic origin

In an unusual feature for a holy well, the site was immortalized in a poem which records:

“THE SYNAGOGUE WELL

The Roman, in his toilsome march, Disdainful viewed this humble spot, And thought not of Egeria’s fount And Numa’s grot.

No altar crowned the margin green, No dedication marked the stone; The warrior quaffed the living stream And hasten’d on.

iii.

Then was upreared the Norman keep, Where from the vale the uplands swell But, unobserved, in crystal jets The waters fell.

In conquering Edward’s reign of pride, Gay streamed his flag from Frodsham’s tower, But saw no step approach the wild And sylvan bower ;

Till once, when Mersey’s silvery tides Were reddening with the beams of morn, There stood beside the fountain clear A man forlorn;

And, as his weary limbs he lav’d In its cool waters, you might trace That he was of the wand’ring tribe Of Israel’s race.

vii.

With pious care, to guard the spring, A masonry compact he made, And all around its glistening verge Fresh flowers he laid.

viii.

“God of my fathers!” he exclaimed, Beheld of old in Horeb’s mount, Who gav’st my sires Bethesda’s pool And Siloa’s fount,

Whose welcome streams, as erst of yore, To Judah’s pilgrims never fail, Tho’ exil’d far from Jordan’s banks And Kedron’s Vale

Grant that when yonder frowning walls, With tower and keep are crush’d and gone; The stones the Hebrew raised may last, And from his Well the strengthening spring May still flow on! “

A Jewish Mikveh, consonantal drift or folly bath?

Despite the poet’s assertion that “he was of the wand’ring tribe, Of Israel’s race.” and that: “The stones the Hebrew raised may last” relics of Britain’s Jewish heritage are scant and any site associated with them historically is of course of great interest and importance. But is Frodsham Castle’s an example? Such baths have been uncovered which were originally ritual baths called Mikveh or Mikvah was this site one? It might be convenient to associate the site with a Jewish community attached to Frodsham Castle. However, there no evidence of a community ever being located there or in the more likely medieval Chester.

So where does the name come from? Beaumont (1888) records that:

“Some have suggested that Saint Agnes was its’ patron, and that thence it won its name.”

This belief is recorded on the current sign beside the well but the name itself is problematic. The majority of St. Agnes dedications appear to associated with late or spurious holy wells such as St. Agnes at Cothelstone where legends of love-lorn visits are linked – all Victorian romantic stuff. The clue to the origin of the well is again recorded by Beumont who states:

“The basin of that at Horsley is called a bath, and, as might be expected, the Synagogue well was also called, for once there was a curate at Frodsham who was an inveterate bather, and he resorted thither every morning and bathed in the well even when it was frozen over, and he had to break the ice before he could have his invigorating bath. But he was of a swimming family, and his father, Sir Lancelot Shadwell, Master of the Rolls, might often be seen leading his seven sons in a swim down the Thames.”

This suggests that the site was probably a plunge pool or cold bath folly. Indeed the steps down in one corner suggest this and the sandstone fabric does not look old enough to be anything of antiquity. Perhaps one of the bathers was Jewish at some point and a local joke developed? Unlikely.

Another option may be that the chamber was the water supply for the castle or great houses. Similar basins exist associated with castles such as Wollaton Hall’s, coincidentally called the Admiral’s Bath due a local resident bathing in it, despite it being a water supply at the time!

Perhaps now the site is no longer being used a receptacle for garden waste, more research may be done to reveal the details.

“It could have been Illmington Spa not Leamington Spa” Newfoundwell, the forgotten chalybeate spring of Warwickshire

Leamington and Ilmington Spot the difference!

Leamington Spa is a well-known spa town, although its spa heritage is not capitalised much, however if only by a twist of fate or geography that the main spa town would be Leamington and not Ilmington spa. For not far from the Gloucestershire border is the village of Ilmington, a quiet sleepy village but once hopes were high for the settlement when in 1681 a plan was made to capitalise on a chalybeate spring found in the parish. Local legend tells that the Lord of the Manor, Henry Lord Capel, saw a local woman washing her eyes in the water of the spring and asked why. She said they eased her eyes and as a result he then contacted local physicians. It was publicised by Oxford Physicians Samuel Derham and William Cole. In their Hydrologia Philosophica or An Account of ILMINGTON WATERS the author describes it great details the qualities of the emerging potential spa. He notes after a lengthy background:

“Now I shall proceed to Enquire, what are the Ingredients of Ilmington Spaw, first taking notice of its Colour, which is far more pale then Rock-spring water. With Syrup of Violets it would turn green, like Alkalizate Liquors with that syrup: with Galls, to a Purple; like Martial Vitrioline Waters: for Cuprous Vitrioline with Galls turn muddy with a very little Purple or Black; but of this more afterwards. Its body being of a thick muddy consistence, I weighed (in a very dry Season) a Pint of this Spaw-water against a Pint of ordinary Water, but the Spaw exceeded near half a Drachm. Another time after a wet Season and when the Ocre was fallen an old Pint pot of common Pump-water weighing 18 Ounces did equalize (and if either, did turn the Scales) the same quantity of the Spaw-water: which may caution us from prefixing a determinate Weight to any Spring-water. Variety in the Weight of Waters may appear by comparing That Salt spring water of Droitwich with sweet springs, yea to him that compareth the Waters of several sweet springs together, For the Esurine salt many times being carried along with the water sliding through its secret Meanders or veins of the Earth; of which part insinuateth itself into, and part corroding occurrent bodies; it fretteth off fragments, such as fragmenta ferrea from Iron-stones, and particles from ordinary stones, which are carried along with the water, and lie latent to the naked eye in its pores, but by Distillation, Evaporation &c. will appear, Whence of necessity followeth a great variety in weight, according to the greater or less quantity of sabulum or fragments therein contained.”

He then notes about the mineral properties. He continues:

“Then I proceeded to enquire after the Mineral, with which this Spring was impregnated. And first I took about half a pint of new milk, upon which in a Porringer I poured this water fresh from the Spring-head, but could not discern any coagulation; yea, for anything did appear, this mixture differed not from a mixture of milk and ordinary spring water. After four miles carriage of the water, when the reddish Ocre began to subside, I poured upon warm milk from the cow a pretty quantity of this water, and let it stand at least twelve hours; but neither in this mixture, nor in milk and this Spaw-water boiled together, did any Coagulum appear. Hence I began to suspect, that its brackish taste was not from an acid Salt; therefore on this spring-water I instilled some oyl of Tartar, but upon the instillation, and the standing of the water all night, a very small curdling did ensue; only the mixture looked more white than the Spaw-water itself, which alteration of colour proceeded from the oyl of Tartar. Whereupon I concluded, that no Acid salt was here predominant, yea rather as such, scarce discernable in this Spring; it being, as I shall hereafter prove, far nearer to an Alkali than to an Acid salt.”

After trying with galls, a common method of testing mineral waters, the author notes:

Now considering the small quantity of Galls, with which a Pint of water was thus tinged, I believe we may compare our new found Spaw (in this particular) with any of the English Medicinal waters, yea with the German Spaws so much in request.”

One of the important aspects of promoting a new potential spa was to compare it to well-known others. The author notes:

“Besides, Aluminous Springs are purgative, witness the Scarbrough Spaw, Epsom and Barnet Waters, &c. but this near Ilmington worketh most what by Urine. Yea perhaps (and truly) I might conclude, That this Spaw in respect of its mineral ingredients worketh not by Siedge. I know it may be objected, That some persons drinking of this water do there upon find a loosness, perhaps to the number of four or five stools or more, To which I might answer, That any simple Spring-water drank in a large quantity, will purge by its own weight: for as it lyeth heavy upon the stomach and intestines it oppresseth Nature, whence the Peristaltick motion is excited to expell that which infests and is burdensome; and if the water doth much oppress the stomach before it pass through the Pylorus, vomiting is the effect according to Dr. Willis. Besides that, Alum is an Acid, as I have already proved, and also is a Cathartick; both which properties are not to be found in this Spaw, comparatively more than in ordinary Spring-water. I observed also, that the Excrements of those that drank this water were turned blackish, which is a consequent to the taking of Chalibeat Medicines, but not to the drinking of Aluminous waters. But observing this Water after its being exposed to the open air for some time, either stagnating at the Spring-head, or else as it is set in open vessels hath a blewish Cremor swimming on the top or surface of the Water, much resembling waters that stand long upon sulphureous bogs; I began to enquire, whether this might not be a Sulphureous Spring, like that at Knarsbrough, &c. By an Analysis of this Water into its Principles, not one grain of combustible Sulphur is to be found.”

The new spa begun to popular, it was described by William Dugdale in his 1730 Antiquities of Warwickshire as:

“much frequented’ and of particular value for the treatment of ‘scrophulous and leprous cases”.                            

However, it would look like the visitors were not enough. The site attracted no well-known visitors, no royalty, no patronage of note and so within the same century the well fell out of favour. It went largely out of use about the time of the enclosure of the common fields in 1781. The Well House built to provide shelter for the users of the well, remained standing for another 80 years. Later the spring became a watering place for stock. In 1998 erosion of the bank of the pond revealed the worked stone. On recovery, it was found to be a sizeable fragment of the basin. This is now incorporated into a fountain a plaque on which reads:

“This is a fragment of a basin installed around 1682 by the Lord of the Manor, Lord Capel to collect water from the chalybeate spring known as Newfound Well. The spring (1/4 m NW of Ilmington on the path to Lower Larkstoke) was described by Dugdale (1730) as: “much frequented’ and of particular value for the treatment of ‘scrophulous and leprous cases”.                                                   

Today the site is a large oval shaped pool in fields above the village. Two plastic pipes in the western end of the pool pour copious amounts of water into it which flows beyond the path into a stream.  On one side of the pond can be seen stone work which may be part of the bath house, if so it is unrecorded.

Standing on this remote quiet location it is difficult to imagine what the place could have been like if the spring had had more money poured into its development. One the county’s first spas, which ironically unlike its better known cousin still flows from its main source rather from a pipe!

Extracted from forthcoming Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Bulgaria: The sacred Pozzo of Garlo

In 1972 a curious sacred spring site was found which appeared to be out of place. It appeared to all to be a sacred holy well associated with those found with the nuragi commonly seen in Sardinia but this was deep in the heart of modern day Bulgaria at Garlo, in Pernik district.

The site is dug into the ground being dug into the eastern slope of a hill, in a valley site clearly selected because of its association with springs. An entrance to east side gives access to a 1 metre wide set of 24 stone stairs, of which the first nine are open to the elements.  with a doomed roof and reached by thirteen stone steps down a seven metre corridor. The centre of the structure is a well with a depth of around five metres. The stairs led to a round circular chamber around four metres in diameter with a vaulted ceiling open to the elements with a circular hole. In the centre at the depth of 5 metres is a stone lined well.

Garlo SWell BG.jpg

Coincidence or connected communities?

Massimo Rassu in their I pozzi sacri in Sardegna e in Bulgaria compares the site with Funtana Coberta in Ballao Sardinia in its structure.

One other piece of evidence to suggest that the two sites share a joint or related origin comes from the proximity of the site to a temple to the Sun. This is curious again because it is hypothesized that the Sardinia pozzo such as Santa Cristina was so arranged in accordance to solar cycles such as the solstice. Was this well similarly organised? Carved symbols around the rocks now lost in undergrowth may have supported this view.

Indoors Nuraghe Garlo BG.jpg

Professor Dimitrina Mitova-Dzhonova dated the pit around the 11th Century BC which would make it in line with those of Sardinia. Those we ask the question did the ancient Nuragic community spread beyond Sardinia or is it a coincidence with ancient civilizations coming to the same design?

A forgotten Bedfordshire holy well – the Holiwell at Odell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for evidence

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

img_3614

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

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

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

A substantial structure

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

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

Was this once then a significant site?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local traditions

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

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

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

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Save St Edith’s Spring

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

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

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

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

Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Staffordshire – forthcoming

An abecedary of sacred springs of the world: (United States) of America: The sacred springs of Seattle

This year’s running theme is to look at global holy wells and healing springs. So for the next twelve months I will doing an abecedary so this months, a bit of a cheat I report back on a site I visited last year. My aim to is to at the similarities between them and many British sites. To start with is a typical spring which is very similar being a religious site later converted to a spa.

Mention Seattle you’ll get Sky Tower, Monorail, Grunge scene perhaps, healing springs are generally not on the list. However, in the suburbs can be found a number of springs which survive in pockets of undeveloped land. One such area is Licton Springs, a small park, located in North Seattle between Interstate 5 and Aurora Avenue, which protects its titular spring.

A red spring sacred to the First Nation

Licton Springs had a spiritual and ritual significance for possibly thousands of years (the area was populated after the last glacial period c10,000 years ago) to the local Duwamish, the tribe who incidentally under Chief Seattle signed the 1855 Port Elliott Treaty at Mukilteo which gave the world Seattle of course!

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Like the more well-known Chalice Well, the significance of the spring was in the providing of its red paint, called Lee’kteed, pronounced liq’ted. The word liq’ted being a dialect word for the reddish mud made from the red ochre deposited. Here this red-ochre pigment would be harvested for spiritual celebration. This red pigment being itself considered sacred and used in the marital ceremonies between the High Borns, the hereditary nobility who married outside of the tribe to other coastal Salish. As a consequence, it was here at the springs they would annually gather to gather the pigment which would only be found in this region. The red-ochre was used to paint their faces, cover their longhouses and other objects of spiritual significance.

Around the spring the tribe built a wu Xted (WUKH-Tud) a sweat lodge where those visiting the spring could cleanse and revitalise. Herbs and the red paint would be applied to the skin to heal.

The coming of the Europeans colonisers 

After purchasing Licton springs in 1870, Seattle pioneer David Denny had the water of two springs in the area tested in 1883 and the results were favourable – one being Iron (the surviving Licton Springs) and the other Sulphur Magnesia. So begun the spa history of the springs. Indeed, the impact of the well was personal, Denny’s own daughter Emily Inez was cured so it was recorded from an incurable disease by drinking the waters. Denny himself only built a cabin but still thousands visited. It was not until 1903 when Calhoun, Denny and Ewing when landscapers Olmstead brothers were to build rustic shelters over the two spring basins and they became a favourite resort for Seattle being a health resort. The rustic shelters never happened but photos from the 1910s show a circular stone surround around the springhead. However, it was not until 1935, an Edward A. Jensen provided thermal baths at a newly developed spa. A sign proclaimed:

“Before travelling to distant resorts in search of health, investigate the merits of the Spa Licton Springs thermal bath.”

The sign proclaimed it would give:

“Relief of neuritis, arthritis, rheumatism, lumbago, tired arches, nervous depositions.”

He also bottled the water and sold it. It is unclear how successful the scheme was but by 1960 the park was purchased by the city. Sadly, the spa building and shed over the iron spring were demolished. However, the iron spring was enclosed by a concrete ring which remains today.

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Despite being enclosed in a park, the spring still has a significant role for the Duwamish. Like many wells modernisation is still a threat as the quote from the Matt Remle’s Sacred sites, sacred rites: Saving Licton Springs on the Last Real Indians website notes:

“ Elders from the Duwamish and other tribes have voiced concerns about damage to or the loss of Licton Springs. I recently spoke with one of my Elders who, as a child, was taken to le’qtid (“Licton Springs”) by her father. She expressed concerns that the demolition of Wilson-Pacific School (Indian Heritage High School) and the construction of the new Mega-School may damage the subterranean water table, disrupting the flow of the mineral waters from the sacred site.

This Elder told me that she had visited le’qtid last Fall to prepare for the Winter Ceremonials, as is our tradition since time immemorial. She pointed out that the rate of flow from le’qtid was substantially reduced, compared to her first visit those many years ago.

Le’qtid cannot be re-created, replaced, or re-located. Its importance is beyond measure and description, and its value is beyond price. The Duwamish People are the stewards of le’qtid, other holy places and the natural endowment that dókwibuA (Creator) bestowed upon our ‘ál’altid (Ancestral Homeland).

At the beginning of time, le’qtid (“Licton Springs”) was given to us by dókwibuA (Creator) in perpetuity. It is an inalienable part of our Patrimony, a legacy from our Ancestors, and the Cultural Heritage of the dxdew’abS (People-of-the-Inside), Chief Seattle’s Duwamish Tribe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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