One of the great things about holy well research is finding a site recorded in an old work, doing field work to find it – and then finding it!
I recently discovered a copy of Bygone water supplies, by J. Steele Elliott which I previously thought was an article and not a book. I had a photocopy of this but this was only of the text once I had opened the work I discovered that at the back of the work it was copiously illustrated with sepia photos of which a large number were of holy and healing wells. Which was a surprise and a useful tool for field work. How many still existed and how many if they survived looked the same?
Bedfordshire is a little covered county in holy and healing well research and Steele Elliot’s work is the only one to have covered the subject at all. Hope includes a number of sites, although one of these is actually in Huntingdonshire!
What is curious is the fact that the site is unrecorded beyond Steele Elliot’s work. There maybe two reasons for this one being the relative obscurity of the text, indeed although the Bord’s reference it in their Sacred Waters, this may be a second-hand reference. The site is absent from Jeremy Harte’s magnus opus on holy wells English Holy Wells a sourcebook
It is not that the site is recorded. An early record is in Oliver St.John Cooper’s Historical Account of Odell of 1787:
“Here is a great plenty of useful stone; lately discovered gravel; and several good springs, two of which have been reputed medicinal. One on the north-east, whose water has not been analyzed, yet well known to be mildly cathartic. That on the north-west has been so celebrated as to obtain the name of Holliwell for itself and two closes, through which it runs into the town”.
It is again mentioned in 1872-8 by William Marsh Harvey in his Hundred of Wiley. Eric Rayner’s Odell, the Hill of Woad from the ‘Bedfordshire Magazine’ in 1970 notes:
“Some of Odell’s water springs were reputed to have medicinal qualities; certainly one on the north-east was well known to be mildly purgative and one, which obtained the name of Holliwell, after supplying village Farm, used to flow into a trough by the roadside for the use of villagers.”
Yet despite these noted, no researchers appears to have looked into the survival or history of the site.
Looking for evidence
The first clue is that the spring is recorded on the north-east. Looking at the early OS maps failed to identify any well named holy, holliwell, holiwell or haliwell, but a spring was marked approximately to the north east on the old maps. Checking the modern map the well was still there and interestingly a footpath crossed close enough to access. Elliott Steele (1933) records that it lay between Village Farm and Great Wood, in significantly called Waterhouse Field, Grass Holiwell and Ploughed Holiwell fields adjoined it.
The photo shows a substantial stone structure but the clue to the locating the holy well and confirming the site was a large tree in the background. If that was still there that would help confirm that the spring and holliwell were the same.
Travelling across the footpath the tree was evident and a tree lined gully was apparent to the right. Interesting the field was being seeded with grass was this Grass Holiwell field? Could this be where the holy well was?
A substantial structure
Carefully veering off the footpath, apologies to the landowner but I was careful not to damage any emerging crops, it was evident that some sort of structure was present albeit overgrown. Going around and climbing down into the gully I was confronted by the structure shown in Elliot’s 1933 photo (I presume this when it was taken but the photos date from 1870 till this date). Much of it unchanged bar the lintel over the door had gone and the stones just above it. Peering inside it is clear that this was a well-built substantial structure. The water arose clear and of considerable depth in a square chamber it flowing from a shute at the bottom. At the bottom could be seen the remains of the lintel and the other stones.
The most curious feature was the arched niche at the back. What was this for? If it was to place buckets on it appeared too narrow and inconveniently placed as one would have to reach over some deep water to get to it. Its ornateness suggests it may have been built to hold religious objects but if so it would make it unique in the county and indeed these are rare features outside well known holy wells such as those in Cornwall.
Was this once then a significant site?
What was it dedicated to? The church gives no clues it’s to All Saints but there was an earlier church as the town was recorded as a Minster in 1220. As James Rattue records in his 1999 The Living Stream there is a strong correlation between Minster towns and holy wells. This would be more supporting evidence. The settlement itself has a considerable history having Roman, Danish and Saxon histories perhaps attracted to the copious supply on this spring. Odell was an important settlement post the Norman conquest and remains of a castle exist. It is possible that the well was constructed by the castle as their supply although there is a substantial well on the site called King John’s well. Of course the name could easily derive from Old English hol meaning ‘hollow’ but the versions of holli and halli suggest it is a genuine holy well.
It is good to see the well survives but clearly it needs some TLC, perhaps a local history group could raise funds. Now the Holliwell has been ‘rediscovered’ perhaps it could be preserved.
Search Staffordshire Past website and the photo below can be found St. Edith’s Well. The picture shows something which composes of a well chamber enclosed in a wicker fence having a thatched rectangular roof placed upon it. This structure was supposedly designed and built in the 1950s and indeed field investigators for the Department of Environment in 1958 noted:
“St Edith’s Well is a rectangular water-filled stone basin, 2.1 m by 1.5 m, apparently recently restored; a flight of steps descends into the water. It is covered by a modern openwork timber structure with a thatched roof. Coins are still thrown into this well and several were seen on the bottom.”
Tim Cockin in his 1992 article One country man to another in The Countryman records that the well house was built and thatched by a Tommy Brayne, the landlord of the village pub, in about 1950, with the encouragement of the people at the manor house. Today this is not the case. The site is well-known enough to find a place in Janet and Colin Bord’s seminal 1985 work Sacred Waters where they record:
“As it is on private land, permission to visit it should be sort by the nearby farm. The rectangular stone basin is covered by a thatched timber structure. The well was visited for eye problems and the King’s Evil, and visitors still throw coins into the water.”
Armed with this book during a visit in the 1990s, I did indeed visit the nearby farm and was greeted by a ‘why would you want to visit that then’ response. However, I was granted access and directed across the fields. Nearby farm was clearly in relative terms! Despite the author’s note what I found was a well in a very sorry state.
Much of the superstructure from the photo had gone. Sadly, it was a rather dilapidated well structure, consisting of what was clearly, although I probably didn’t realise at the time, that fallen wooden structure laying over a brick-lined rectangular pool where steps into the structure could just be traced. It was still there but was not perhaps as spectacular as I expected.
The well is first mentioned in 1696 by Francis Plot in his History of Staffordshire he notes:
“many other waters…performe unaccountable Cures…the water of… St Ediths well… in the parish of Church Eyton.”
The well has some curious local traditions. One stating that the waters did not cause rusting. One I had not heard of before and possible being unique. As stated by the Bords it was good for eyes and the Kings Evil. The Victorian County History records a local legend notes that near this well was the site originally chosen for the church but that, but the stones brought there by mule-back by day were removed to the present site by night. This parish church was dedicated to St Edith by the nuns of Polesworth Abbey after it had been granted to them in about 1170, although whether this because a local St. Edith, rather than that associated with Kemsing Kent, or not is unclear. Interestingly according to Cockin (1992) records that the Bishop of Chester visited the well to bless it, and its water was used for baptisms by the family at the manor house.
Save St Edith’s Spring
The problem being clearly as I found in the 1990s this is not the best positioned holy well. In the middle of a field, several fields in from the road with no clear route to it and no holy well. I can more than understand the farmer not wanting hoards of curious onlookers crossing fields to have a look. However, that does not explain or justify the deplorable state of the well. According to Tim Prevett on Megalithic portal it has been allowed to fall derelict since the late 1980s despite pleas from the local Parish council and the site is slowly perhaps being forgotten. He states:
“Speaking to the church warden and flower arranger at St Edith’s they said the well had been largely been forgotten by the village, and were unsure in what condition it would be found. Also, permission needs to be gained to visit, I think from a bungalow just next to the canal side nearest the well, having left Church Eaton”
Speed forward another 20 years or so I have learnt things have not improved. The local concerns were sadly true; thanks to some locals I was provided with the opportunity of an update, although I note it is away from footpaths and on private land so I am not recommending you trespass. Much of the wood has been cleared, although some sections remain, but it is long beyond repair. The well chamber is still full of water, albeit sluggish and algae covered. Steps could be seen however. We must be thankful that its fabric remains but surely some compromise can be reached to save this notable Staffordshire well.
For more information on Staffordshire’s holy wells look out for
Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Staffordshire – forthcoming
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!
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Surrey is not the first county associated with holy wells, although James Rattue’s 2008 Holy Wells of Surrey makes it clear there are a number. Visions of the Virgin Mary are! So when we have a holy well and a vision of the Virgin Mary seen together it is an interesting site – but how old and genuine as a holy well is it? Especially curious as Rattue notes it appears in most surveys of holy wells.
Easily found following the sign from the church yard towards the river the well is certainly very picturesque, if a little muddy to get to. The well is unusual in being enclosed in two brick built chambers each covered by a metal lid. The water does not look particularly refreshing being rather stagnant and full of leaves. Over the well is an ornate wooden and tiled cover. A.J.A. Hollins in his 1933 A History of Dunsfold compiled from various sources gives an account of its repair and what was there beforehand:
“Until 1933 it consisted of two brick lined cisterns of uncertain date with wooden lids in a very poor state of repair. Now by the efforts of the Dunsfold Amateur Dramatic Society there has been erected over it a shelter or shrine of old oak with a shingled roof, and on one side of it is an exquisitely carved figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Child.”
Hollins’ (1933) gives some further details:
“The Holy Well lies on the bank of the river below the church and is approached by a short lane. The water which is singularly pure and cold even in the height of summer, is derived from two streams which have their origin somewhere in the hill on which the rectory stands. These unite just above the Well. From one of them at one time the water supply to the rectory was obtained, a one pony power circular pump being employed. With the advent of Company’s water this has long been derelict.”
A real holy well?
A. Judges (1901) in his Some West Surrey villages is also clear of its ancient origin and perhaps suggests a monastic association:
“As to one tradition connected with the spot, however, there can be no doubt. The well between the church and the river was for generations considered a holy well. Even to this day it is credited with medicinal properties, and people come for the water as a cure for sore eyes. The Rector, the Rev. W. H. Winn, favours the theory that it was on account of this well that the church was built on its present site, some little distance from the centre of the village. Water is scarce in the Weald, and this is the only spring-well rising to the surface of the ground which Mr. Winn knows of in the whole country. It never runs dry, and rises within 4 or 5 feet of the river, with which, however, it has no connection, except in the way of overflow. I ought, perhaps, to add here that the orchard near the mill was known as the Abbot’s Garden, and an old house on it, removed in late years, is supposed to have been connected with the church or some old monastery.”
Similarly, Hollins (1933) is unequivocal:
“Isn’t it significant, bearing in mind what has been said about the places usually chosen by the early peoples for their settlements, that the church is built near the river (which becomes the Arun before flowing into the sea at Littlehampton) practically beside the Holy Well, on one Roman road and very near another? As regards the well, its fame has spread down to modern times, and there is very little doubt but that it was sacred from the very earliest times….. it would form the site of a shrine for primitive worship in heathen days, and when the Christian era began, the builders of the first church would place it, as church builders frequently did, on an already sacred site, and merely substituted their ideas for those already existing. All the oldest churches in this country built on heathen sites have wells in or near them, for the Ancient Britons and their successors needed water for purification rites. The Well under Christianity would naturally have the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and this in turn would give the name to the Church.”
The usual claims, heathen worship, possibly Roman adoption by the early church, a theme we will return too in a moment.
Doubt was creeping in to Hollins’ (1933) work:
“The actual history of the Well is obscure. What can be stated is that from the very earliest times it was a sacred spot….There is a strong tradition that the Blessed Virgin has appeared at the Well, and one old belief is that she is always in residence in Dunsfold. The Well was an ideal spot for heathen worship, and when the Christian era began, the worship of St Mary at the Well would naturally follow, and thus give a lead to the church. But the Well was here first. By the very nature of its water, it can be said for certain that its use must have occasioned what no doubt would have seemed miraculous cures in the days when medicine was little understood.…..The shrine was dedicated by the Bishop of Guildford on Sept. 29th 1933.”
James Rattue (2008) hits the nail it on the head:
“This ought to be a clear-cut case of a holy well linked to a church, and, given its location, probably a comparatively late dedication like the Mary Wells we find in the Kentish Weald. But perhaps it’s even later than that. On the 1897 O.S map it appears merely as a tank, not even a well.”
Most holy wells are marked on old O.S maps if not present today, even those which have been missed off are still springs or wells, not tanks. A tank suggests a modern structure, a purely functional one, one established for farming not faith. Of course, not being mentioned on the map does not 100% go against it being a holy well but it does not give further support. Was it just a local mineral spring established in the age of spas? Hollins’s (1933) notes:
“Possessing notable qualities for the cure of diseases of the eyes – this has recently been confirmed by analysis.”
Hollins’s (1933) gives further details on its properties and its analysis:
“The water is very strongly impregnated with chlorine, a fact only recently discovered, when a noted Harley Street eye specialist took the matter up from a scientific point of view, and this is extremely interesting confirmation of the fact that the water has always been held to be marvellous for eye diseases.”
Indeed, the earliest reference to the site by Lewis Andre in his 1897 Dunsfold Church in the Surrey Arch Collections states simply:
“in the vale south of the church, there is a well, which is said to have been resorted to until recently for medicinal purposes.”
Although a mineral spring is very likely after all, Surrey had a large number of these and many were of nationwide fame. Maybe we shall never know.
Yet Hollins’s (1933) notes
“There are other holy wells in England — and in Surrey — but an old book in Cambridge University Library specifically mentions Dunsfold as being one of four in England.”
Have we all missed something? Neither Rattue, Harte or I have ever located this book which mentions specifically Dunsfold. If it could be found the authenticity of the well would not be in question.
A site of modern pilgrimage
Hollins (1933) notes that:
“Even in modern times it has been a place of pilgrimage, especially by Roman Catholics, and there is indication that this has always been the case. Roman Catholics have been heard to say that one day they will get the church back into their fold. Its dedication to St Mary and the presence of the Well are, of course, the reason for this. From London too even in recent times have pilgrimages been made.”
Whether these pilgrimages occur is unclear
Visions of the Virgin Mary
Judges (1901) notes that:
“A statement has been made that Dunsfold Church is a special object of pilgrimage by Roman Catholics. One ought, perhaps, to say in passing that the sole warrant for this assertion is the fact that the church is visited several times every year by parties of Roman priests from the seminary at Wonersh, and that on one occasion, some little time since, a numerous band of visitors came from London, the explanation being their belief that the ‘ Blessed Virgin Mary was always in residence at Dunsfold.”
Always in residence, a curious statement but delve deeper and it appears it refer to as Rattue places it ‘vague oral traditions’ of the Virgin Mary appearing in the vicinity, as referred to in the Guidebook. The Surrey Advertiser of the 14th October 1933 states she appeared to those who sought the spring’s water. England is not renowned for recorded visions of the Virgin, and indeed the only one appears to be the most famous, Walsingham, if we do not include the discredited Our Lady of Surbiton which begun in the 1980s.
Of course, new age pagans may suggest that some visions record a pre-Christian tradition of a pagan water deity. Certainly this is an ancient location with an old 1500-year-old yew which may have been the original focal point explaining the remote location of the church. So the site may have been pagan and this may be true, but the details are very vague when concerning the well. More likely is that this was a local attempt to create their own ‘Walsingham’ at a time when the Catholic church was beginning to re-establish itself more firmly in the region, after all an Anglo-Catholic movement had re-established itself in 1921 under Father Alfred Hope Pattern. The most famous healing spring associated with a vision of the BVM is of course Lourdes and it is tempting to make a connection. Did the local St John’s Seminary want to establish a local Lourdes? Did they need a well for their ablutions and a local story, possibly from ‘modern’ mystics visiting the area or completely concocted to justify giving the well the association with the Virgin?
In conclusion, I think it is easy to agree with Jeremy Harte (2008) in his English Holy who believes that:
“The cult at the well has the flavour of 1930s Anglo-Catholicism, and seems to have been created then.”
Good for them I suppose you could say and similarly ask does it really does not matter that its provenance for it is difficult to find such a delightful sacred spring?
Guest blog post: Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Ffynnon Elian, Llanelian… the ‘Cursing’ well? by Jane Beckerman
A great pleasure to have an account of North Wales most infamous well from the person who restored this once lost site, Jane Beckerman. We met briefly last year at last month’s holy well site Ffynonn Sara with Janet Bord and Tristan Grey Hulse and she has kindly provided this account, extracted from her forthcoming book on its history a great way to end our twelve months of North Welsh wells…
Near the small village of Llanelian in North Wales, lies one of the most important holy wells not just in Wales, but the British Isles. She looks very different now but two hundred and fifty years ago, beside the small, old road leading from Colwyn Bay to Llanelian Church, there was a large square wall surrounding an inner well with a lockable door, a fountain, pathways and even a bathing pool. From her untraceable beginnings to the middle of the 19th century, thousands of people visited the well and the nearby church, in order that their wishes might be granted by Saint Elian.
Ffynnon Elian (The holy well of St. Elian) has a long history, but from the beginning of the 18th century to half-way through the 19th, she was both famous and feared for her power to grant destructive wishes, or to ‘curse’. Known far and wide as the ‘Cursing Well’ and reaching the height of her notoriety in the early years of the 19th century, Ffynnon Elian was thought of as the place where it was possible to put a terrifying and successful curse on your enemies. The flood of sensational writing about the well, beginning in the 1780s tells us that people lived in fear and died of fright if they thought, or were told, that they had been ‘put in the well’. Only one of the writers, who visited the well during the period of her greatest notoriety challenged the idea that a holy well would have been used in so overwhelmingly poisonous and destructive a way. This fearsome reputation has continued and until recently has never been challenged.
Recent research shows that the ‘power’ of Ffynnon Elian was a fascinating and complex phenomenon and that the well was used essentially to undo supposed ill-wishing. The power of the well that endured was her reputation for curing the ‘curses’ of everyday life, for exposing wrong-doing and returning property to its rightful owner.
The ‘curses’ of life in North Wales during the years of the Napoleonic Wars, when the ‘cursing’ reputation became established, were many. Enclosure acts took away areas of common land for grazing a few animals and growing small amounts of food; the war with France took men, and their wages, away from homes and families; the weather between 1795 and 1816 was so poor that harvests were ruined or insufficient. Corn prices soared, riots ensued. Industrialisation brought new employment opportunities to North Wales, but new dangers with it. Improved farming methods and machinery brought some relief through better harvests, but there were fewer jobs available and staple crops like oats and barley were being neglected in favour of the ‘new’ crops, potatoes and wheat; less reliable in the uncertain weather of North Wales, and less nourishing.
A report prepared for Thomas Pennant in around 1775, in preparation for his Tours of Wales, contains the account given above of the way Ffynnon Elian looked at that time and also the first account of well’s powers to redress wrong doing. A woman at the beginning of the eighteenth century visited the well with a friend, to find out who had stolen her coverlet, and to ask that the item be returned to her. The two women had come to Ffynnon Elian from Llandegla, 40 miles away, past several other holy wells and places of healing. After visiting the well they both knelt before the altar in the church at Llanelian, a few hundred yards away, to ask for Saint Elian’s blessing. After praying, the petitioner waited outside the church, while her friend was unable to rise from her knees. St Elian refused to let her rise until she had confessed to the theft of the coverlet. Ffynnon Elian at that time was thought of as literally a ‘fountain’ of truth and justice that was not available elsewhere.
Thomas Pennant, a wealthy landowner, and a JP as well as a travel writer, promoted the myth of Ffynnon Elian as a place of malignant ‘cursing’ and wrote that he himself had been threatened. Further reading tells us that he had been astonished to find that other wealthy landowners were not bringing thieves to court because they were scared of being ‘put in the well’ (‘cursed’ at Ffynnon Elian). He reports his dismay that people were ‘stealing turneps’ with no threat of redress. It is difficult to be wholly sympathetic when one realises the circumstances in which people were stealing cattle food, almost certainly to eat themselves. And it points to another way Ffynnon Elian was used; as a way of redressing the very unequal social balance of the time.
Ffynnon Elian helped those who believed themselves or family members to have been ‘cursed’, or wronged, down on their luck, or ill. Depositions from a court case in 1818 described exactly why they went to the well. The depositions also describe what actually happened there. The ancient practice of transformation through water, traceable in Wales to pre-Roman society, and certainly used by the Romans in Wales in the shape of ‘cursing tablets’, impelled people to seek guidance, help and healing, in the absence of other agency, through the intercession of St Elian. A recent article in this blog talks about ‘cursing tablets’. Ffynnon Elian stands near to one of the Roman roads running towards Anglesey. Ritual at the well revealed at the 1818 court case shows that comparison can usefully be made with Roman custom at holy wells.
Ffynnon Elian, like all living things, changed her shape, her looks and her customs over the centuries. Her last, and best-known guardian, Jac Ffynnon Elian, only stopped offering his services in the 1850s. The continuing ‘magic’ of Ffynnon Elian was the deep belief she inspired in her power to transform lives. Jac Ffynnon Elian wrote that a man could be cured by the strength of his own beliefs, or he could suffer because of them. The history of this extraordinary well is testimony to his words.
A complete history of Ffynnon Elian is in preparation
“+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”
So reads the inscription at one of the country’s most famous and picturesque holy wells…but what is the truth?
The most beautiful fountain….
Taking the lane up from between the houses and the side of the farm, climbing over and stile and into a pastoral landscape, ancient oaks lie to the left and a small babbling brook, moving away at great speed as we follow this the enclosure of the well is ahead of us. Here laying in this peaceful enclosure
Whose well is it?
Three names appear to be attributed to the well – Lady, St Ninian and St Paulinus. Which is the correct one? Certainly the later was current in John Warburton in his 1715 History of Northumberland describes it as:
“Paulinus’ Well, a very beautiful fountain in a square figure, length 42 feet and 21 foot in breadth; wall’d about with a curious stone resembling porfire, paved in the bottome and incompos’d with a grove of trees and at each corner thereof the foundation of a small [illegible]. Out of the well floweth a stream of water very cold, and clear as christall, and if cleaned out would be a most comodious cold bath and perhaps effect several cures without a marvell. At the east end lyeth a stone 3 foot in length and 2 in breadth called the holy stone, said to be the same whereon the forementioned bishop kneeled at his baptising of the heathen English; and was formerly held in great veneration by the gentry of the Roman Catholick religion who oft-times come here on pilgrimage.”
This association with St. Paulinus is easily explained. Although Bede descrived the conversion of 3000 this was misread by John Leland as Sancte Petre (holy stone )but it was Sancti Petri – St Peter’s Minster, York…an easy mistake but one which then enters as fact into Camden’s Britannia and consolidated over and over again! This was further endorsed by as William Chatto (1935) notes:
“a stone figure, intended for Paulinus, which was brought from Alnwick in 1780.”
The name Lady’s Well is also easily explained there was a Benedictine priory of Holystone which was dedicated to the Virgin in the 13th century and either their name was transferred to or else they renamed it. It was probably the former as the a signboard was first seen by a William Chatto seen in 1835 is the first to call it ‘the Lady’s Well’ and it appears on such on the 1866 OS. Hall (1880) calls it ‘St Ninian’s Well’. By the time of Butler (1901–2) all three names were in use, as he says that:
‘the beautiful well at Holystone, known to us as “The Lady’s Well”, described… as“The Well of St Paulinus”, was formerly “St Ninian’s Well”’
When visited by Dixon (1903) it was:
“a spring of beautiful water in a grove of fir trees a little north of the village. The well is a quadrangular basin within a neatly kept enclosure; the key of the gate can be obtained at the Salmon Inn… A stone statue of an ecclesiastic, originally brought from Alnwick castle, formerly stood in the centre of the well, but a few years ago this was removed and placed at the west end of the pool, and a cross of stone bearing the following inscription substituted: “+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”’.
A sizeable hoard
Hall (1880) notes that:
“At the bottom, visible through the pellucid water, Dr Embeton informs me he has formerly noticed many pins lying.”
Binnall and Dodds (1942–6) found it:
“now a wishing well, into which crooked pins or occasionally pence or halfpence are thrown.”
No pins can be seen in its waters although they would be hidden by the leaves and perhaps the sign which notes:
“don’t damage (sic) the water as it’s the village water supply”
However, beside the saint’s statue laying at his foot is a small hoard of modern coins and so perhaps starts a modern tradition. One wonders what happens to the money? National Trust? Church or local landowner?
All in all despite its duplicity with names and dubious origins sitting in the arbour of trees and peering into that clean beautiful water in this remote location you are divorced from the modern world and its modern problems…and if for that reason only Holystone’s special spring is worthy of a top ten for anyone.
A holy well?
Brighton has two noted sites, although the second strictly speaking should not be on the website and the first is rather confused. The most famed being that of St. Anne’s Well. Its waters were noted as Clifford Musgrave in his 1970 Life in Brighton, From the Earliest Times to the Present notes:
“The waters of the well had some reputation for promoting fruitfulness, local shepherds having observed the remarkable fecundity of the sheep that drank from it, but Dr .Relhan was somewhat sceptical about it having a similar effect with human beings.”
The site is recorded in having a long history, but there does not appear to be any substantial history. As Musgrave (1970) again notes:
“A chalybeate spring known as St Anne’s Well, at the Wick, half a mile west of St. Nicholas’s Church, and now in Hove. Dr Russell is said to have made this primitive little spa more impressive and convenient by having the spring ‘enclosed within a bason.’”
However, this may be a back derived story to support its latter existence as Spa, certainly it was operating in the 1700s but it was until the 1760s that improvements were made and by 1800 a pump room was built over it and a pump house was constructed at the top of the hill in the park. The pump room was improved by a Reverend Thomas Scutt adding a colonnade.
At first the spa was popular a ‘Mrs. Fitzherbert’ visiting in 1830 wrote that:
“….the waters have wonderfully improved my health and strength.”
Indeed a favourable 1882 review in the Brighton Gazette wrote it was:
“one of the finest springs in Europe”.
Sadly, despite these good reviews, the attraction of the sea and the spas distance from it was one of the factors which lead to its decline and closure. The pump house went through several uses and was finally demolished in 1935 as the spring had slowed down. A mock well head considered but finally a circular brick well was constructed upon a circular plinth. The spring or rather some water flows from it, it does not appear to be a chalybeate in nature.
A fake spa!
The other site was the German Spa. This was however, an artificial mineral water spa to capitalise on the fact that St. Ann’s was too far away but there was still a demand. Subsequently, a Frederick Struve, a research chemist from Saxony, invented a machine that reproduced the characteristics of natural mineral water using chemicals. Bizarrely at the Spa, it was claimed that the waters of Karlsbad, Kesselbrunnen in Bad Ems, Marienbad, Bad Pyrmont amongst other continental spas could be obtained. In 1825 Struve opened the pump room of his ‘German Spa’. A building was constructed, which the Brighton Gazette’s Fashionable Chronicle described as:
“The building consists of a large handsome room fifty or sixty feet in length, and of proportionate breadth and height. A fine flight of steps lead to the noble saloon, on which are placed Ionic columns, supporting a portico in the purest Grecian taste. On the side of the Saloon opposite the entrance runs a counter, behind which are ranged cocks that supply different kinds of waters.”
The enterprise was successful, and it had 333 subscribers in the first season, which ran from May to November, and after ten years even King William IV became a patron and such it was renamed Royal German Spa. However, by 1850 the pump room was closed by mineral water was still being made on site from water extracted from a 150 foot well. The company in 1963 moved to a larger building and the spa building became derelict and was largely demolished in the mid-1970s but the neo-classical colonnade of the spa building survives.
Possibly one of the easiest of North Wales’s holy wells located a few feet from the roadside down a cobbled path, all part of the local vicar’s attempt to landscape and preserve the site in the 1970s. A plaque on the wall tells us it is Ffynnon Sara. The well itself consists of a large stone lined bath like structure, 4.5 by 2.3 metres and fills to around a metre depth although when I visited it appeared only a few centimetres in depth, the water being reached by four steps in one corner.
The well was once firmly on the pilgrim’s trail from Holywell to St Davids being marked on maps until the 17th century. A cottage was located nearby and may have been used by visitors. Peering into the duckweed covered sluggish water it is difficult to see how these waters had thought to have a wide range of powers. Amongst the usual claims of eczema and rheumatism, cancer was said to be cured here. Patients would bathe in the well and leave pins! Presumably those who bathed afterwards would be aware of this. Crutches were said to have been left in the cottage which existed on the site, said to have been lost in the 1860s. Now a sign proclaims unfit to drink!
Who’s well is it?
There has been some confusion over the origin of the name. Whilst the name could easily derive from the owner of the nearby lost cottage, possibly a family name, others have sought to associated with a saint. St Saeran, a sixth century saint has been suggested. He established a monastic settlement at Llanynys, eight or so miles from the site. However, there is no reason why they should be the original dedication. Indeed in the 17th century it was called Fynnon Pyllau Perl – pearl ponds – perhaps after pearl producing mussels in the water.
Upon visiting the well I was greeted with a delightful encounter. Peering into those murky waters was a lady who unbeknownst to her got me interested into holy wells in the first place. It was author Janet Bord. With her was fellow enthusiast, Tristan Grey Hulse (founder of the Source new series, author and St Winifred Wells companion) and a number of others. They had simply stopped there to have a quick look and were actually only visiting churches. I suppose after visiting so many wells it was bound to happen but it was a fitting finish to my North Wales Holy well pilgrimage.
The other noticeable spring, (see here for the other) in the picturesque suburb of Carshalton is St. Margaret’s Well. It appears to be an obvious holy well with that name, however it may not that clear cut. The area was redeveloped by the noted John Ruskin, social reformer, philanthropist, art critic and environmentalist, as a memorial to his mother. A rectangular stone reading:
“In obedience to the giver of Life,
of the brooks and fruits that fed it,
and the peace that ends/may this well be kept sacred,
for the service of men’s flocks and flowers,
and be by kindness called/Margaret’s well.”
This pool was beautifie and endowed by John Ruskin Esq M.A.,L.L.D.,/1876.”
Ruskin kept detailed notes on the work to repair the site. He wrote of his first intentions he mused:
“Half-a-dozen men, with one day’s work could cleanse these pools and trim the flowers about the banks…”
By 1872 Ruskin he was repairing the site using George Brightling, a local historian to help him and it is his letters of correspondence which tell us something of the work done on it. As the area was a manorial waste, Ruskin had to get approval from the manor court and in 1872 they agreed that Ruskin:
“be at liberty to make improvements to the rear of the Police Station by forming a Dipping Well with a pathway thereto and outlet from the pond, and in so doing to give the same facilities for the use of the water as now exist and to clear out the pond at his own expense and to continue to do so and to plant shrubs and flowers by the paths.”
This is clearly suggests that there was not a well already on the site, but whether there was a spring which already bore the name is not clear. By April 12th that year Ruskin had asked Mr Scott to draw up plans and to protect the opening from all possibility of pollution and to face the wall above the pond with stone. A further letter from from a Gilbert Scott to Brightling dated 15 April 1872 describe:
“It consists mainly of a facing of the central part of the wall – say equal to those central arches – with marble – I would say a foot thick, with projecting counter- points from the piers of – say – 2 to 2½ ft projection, & 3 ft wide. I think that the side arches of his work will not be so wide as the present side arches, though the central arch will coincide with the present one in width. The main thing probably is the foundation for all this, which must be based on whatever substratum there is capable of supporting the work..”
However, the marble fountain was never constructed. By 1877 it was basically constructed and every photos show a rustic wooden bridge over the outflow and similarly rustic fencing. Today, the pool is very rarely full of water, but the decorative remain and most can be seen peering through the railings. Beside the railings on the footpath remains the dipping well supplied by a pump…sadly dry.
Holy Well or not?
Whitaker in his Water supplies of Surrey calls it Lady or St. Margaret’s Pond. The spring is certainly the main one of the settlement that referred to in the place name of Auueltone in 675. Sadly, the church which can aid in identifying holy wells is called All Saints. On reflection I think it is likely considering Ruskin’s concern for nature that he found a well named the same his mother rather than invent it. One hopes that a modern day Ruskin could tidy it up once again!
Interested in Surrey holy wells? Check out James Rattue’s Holy wells of Surrey.- an indispensable guide