An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Ain Hleetan well Qatar

This month we have the letter q which restricts us to one country! Fortunately, Qater does have some historical water supplies. However details are limited and so this month is a rather shorter blog post so apologies.

In the dry terrain of Qatar water was understandably an essential resource. However, like many places modern water systems have meant that the 107 ancient wells of the country have slowly been lost and forgotten. One of the most significant is Ain Hleetan Well.

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Found on the west coast of Al Khor, Ain Hleetan Well was the principle source of the Al Mahanda or Al Muhannadi tribe of the city of Al Khor settled in the 18th century. A local legend states that a group of hunters were hunting a hare and found the spring, which sounds like a classic folklore motif but details are lacking. More realistically, a new water supply was needed as the city expanded. Al Khor towers were built in 1900 to defend this well.

The water arises in a circular well head and then fills a cylindrical basin. Locally people called it the ‘Doctor’ as its water were believed to be curative according to old oral sources. Details of which are difficult to find though.


The sacred spring of England’s first patron saint – searching for St Edmund’s Springs in East Anglia (part two): Hoxne, Suffolk

Last month we discussed the history and location of St Edmund’s springs or well at Hunstanton at the site where the saint arrived in England, in this post we move forward to the time of Edmund’s martyrdom and to Hoxne, a place said to be historically associated with that event.

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The Martyrdom of King Edmund

Edmund’s death is recorded by his chronicler Abbo occurring at Haeglisdun. Although Hellesdon near Norwich or Bradfield St Clare, where there is a Heelesdon ley near Bury, are perhaps phonetically more likely sites. Neither have any folklore associations only Hoxne. Which is said to be associated with the account as early as 1101 has a tree, woods, chapel, holy well and bridge connected with the King. Aside from the spring there are or rather were four sites associated with the saint – a chapel, a woods, a tree and a bridge.

The most notable being the tree and the bridge. Of the bridge called Goldbrook Bridge, it is said that the saint hid from the Danes, however his golden spurs glinting in the water were seen by a newly-wed couple who thus gave him away to the Danes. As he was dragged to his martyrdom he cursed all wedding couples who would cross the bridge and well into the 19th century, wedding corteges would go the long way around.

Of the tree a more direct link exists to his death. For on the 20th November 869 Edmund was captured by the Danes and tortured being tied to a tree, shot with arrows, speared with javelins and scourged and then beheaded. Hoxne claims the tree:

DEAR Sir, I send you the particulars which I able to collect respecting the St Edmund’s Oak which was a remarkable tree and full of was entirely demolished on the llth of any apparent cause the trunk was shivered pieces and the immense limbs with the all round in a very remarkable manner The of the trunk were 12 feet in length 6 feet 20 feet in circumference it contained about St timber and the limbs 9 leads 11 foot of excellent the branches which spread over 48 yards yielded four loads of battens and 184 faggots.”

I examined the trunk carefully and found the an arrow partly corroded projecting from the inside of the hollow part of the trunk about 4 or 5 feet from which part had warted nearly feet quite inside of the tree and Wes perfectly decayed arrow and was covered a little more than a foot sound wood the annual ring or layer shewing of more than 1000 years as near as can be made.”

Now at the site of this tree is a monument reading:

‘St. Edmund the Martyr, AD 870. Oak Tree fell August 1848 by its own weight.”

The other wood association is Home wood which the account above records where was found between the legs of a wolf the:

“adjacent head of St Edmund was supposed to have been was cleared many years ago”

What of the chapel? Well there were two one at the site of his death at Cross Street and another in a wood called Sowood possibly where the head was found. Only 80 years after his death, Hoxne had become a see of the church and by 1226 a priory was founded. All suggesting Hoxne was important.

Will the correct site reveal itself?

Like at Hunstanton tracking down the true location of St. Edmund’s Springs or Well is problematic as again multiple sites via for its location.  Cuttings from newspapers, etc. relative to the county of Suffolk, 1806-1847 notes of:

“ST EDMUND’S OAK ……inexhaustible character of the spring of water which is tabled we to have miraculously flowed from the place the head of the martyr lay may we have no doubt explained by natural causes.”                                   

This source most certainly places it in the same field:

“There is also a spring of the spot where the St Edmund’s tree grew which of the field have never been able to divert”

This is the site stated by Burgess (1988) Crosses and holy wells of Norfolk and Suffolk being a stagnant pond enclosed in trees, twenty yards from the memorial cross marking the location of the tree the saint was martyred on. The author states that it was used by pilgrims visiting the site of the saint’s supposed martyrdom which does appear to be a more likely location.

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Yet Taylor (2016) places it as a spring said to arise on an island in a moated pond stating:

“Near Hoxne in Suffolk – one possible site for Edmund’s martyrdom – is a deep moat enclosing a small island on which the very same freshwater spring was said to be found.”

This is now enclosed in the grounds of a modern house but fieldwork cannot indicate a spring and the island itself is inaccessible. Unfortunately no one was in to ask.

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Another source, states that it was enclosed in a modern well house to the North of Abbey Farm. In the Historic England entry for Hoxne Abbey it is recorded that:                                                “

“There was also a cistern, presumably to collect water for domestic use, and a well known as St Edmund’s Well.”                                           

This I presume is the small tile pitched roof brick square structure beside the drive to the house. This is engulfed in briars and close inspection was difficult.

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Interesting it does not appear to have been referred to as St Edmund’s Well and it appears Burgess (1988) is the first to record this name. It is worth noting also absent in Jeremy Harte’s (2008) English holy wells. However, a possible fourth location was indicated by the manager of a business close to the Abbey Farm, a building built 15 years ago was placed over a copious spring which made its construction difficult. It was filled with concrete.

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Head and spring?

The Eastern Counties Magazine & Suffolk Note-Book’ records something interesting that the :

“freshwater spring, said to have emerged on the spot where Edmund’s head was found between the paws of a grey wolf.”

Cuttings from newspapers, etc. relative to the county of Suffolk, 1806-1847 records also:

“the character of the spring of water which is tabled to have miraculously flowed from the head of the martyr lay may we have no be explained by natural causes”

Now this is an interesting part of the legend which compares favourably hagiographically speaking with many holy wells where the head lands on the ground a spring arises. A spring arose where St Alban’s head fell after decapitation, St Juthware’s well, Dorset, St Osyth’s Essex, St Kenelm’s at Client and even a recent one that of St Thomas’s well at Windleshaw from a Roman Catholic decapitated in the protestant persecutions. It looks like we can add St Edmund’s Spring to this list.

A lost pre-Saxon saint?

It is thought that these associations with the saint and particularly the legend of Goldbrook Bridge are later embellishments and it is possible that the account recorded above of the tree in the Gentlemen’s magazine may have been a concoction of the writer of that piece especially as he even calls it Belmore’s oak. So it begs the question why? Does this mean the spring at Hoxne is not holy? I think no and I think it hides something more interesting perhaps; the record of a pre-Saxon probably Celtic hermit saint. All the clues are there; the island an ideal hermitage location with its spring, the bridge curse, curses being associated with hermit saints to discourage visitors and of course the decapitation a common motif (which many have argued indicate the survival of a head cult but this is debatable). Did local memory of a saint survive long enough into the Norman conquest to have the Saxon saint’s story be grafted onto the holy landscape as a sort of patriotic response?


A Bedfordshire Field Trip: The holy wells of Bromham

I am (slowly) working through researching the Holy and healing wells of the county of Bedfordshire, a county which has never been covered in considerable detail in the topic, although Elliot Steele’s 1922 Bygone water supplies of Bedfordshire is a very good start.

Many years ago in the 1980s when I first got into the subject enlightened and enthused with Sacred Waters I aimed to try and find holy wells locally to where I lived and Bedford was a possible place. I had read brief record of a holy well associated with a medieval bridge in Bromham on the outskirts. However, I could find no more information that this but I did locate the bridge, but the OS map did not reveal a well or spring.

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Stopping at one side of the bridge I was amazed to see a small gate, with 18 steps which went down to an arched well head beneath the bridge. This was a rare survival, a Holy Well that arose at the base of a medieval bridge was possibly unique despite a number being recorded in old documents. Sadly, the modernisation of these bridges over time had meant this wells were either filled in or replaced by pumps. However, here it survived.

Why was the well here? The bridge is first mentioned in 1224 when parish records show that 4 shillings was spent on repairs  During the 14th and 15th Centuries a toll was collected from anyone crossing. The bridge also included a Chantry Chapel dedicated to St Mary and St Katherine and this was probably associated with the well. It is recorded that it was constructed for the ‘safety of travellers who were in danger from thieves’. The chapel survived until the Reformation in the sixteenth century which spared the well. However the question is was the well there before the chapel or did it capitalise on the popularity of the spring. . The well itself is little recorded but was frequented by those seeking cures although more recently was used as a water supply for the village. The current bridge, now 26 arches, was built in 1813 and unlike other rebuilds respected the spring which was there. The Bromham walk guide notes that the steps and stone arch were built when the road was widened in 1902. It records that:

“As late as the 1950s the well was easily accessed and often photographed but today it’s overgrown and easy to miss!  Although at first glance there’s not much to see, its a good example of how a small feature in the landscape can tell a bigger story of the history and geography of our landscapes.”

The site on the drive to Bromham mill is long overdue a tidy up and repairing as can be seen by the photos taken in the 1980s and in 2018.

Two mineral springs are recorded in the parish one near Webb Lane and another in Grange Lane the later having a stone-arched head and formerly had steps from the road; its water had a depth of seven feet. Steele (1922) notes that it is now enclosed on private land and I have been unable to locate whether it has survived.

What has survived is the Grove spring. arises in a small wood bearing its name. It is enclosed in a stone arch and fills a channel. Until 2005 the well was ruined and was restored. It is to be said have had curative properties and was cleared in 1872/8 by Lord Hampden for healing fresh wounds.

It is said that the water was once much sought after for its purity and was fetched with ‘bucket and yoke’ by the villagers. Tradition has it that the water of Grove Spring in Bromham Park has healing powers for sore eyes and sprains.  It was derelict for a number of years and was restored appearing similar to that shown in Steele Elliott’s photo as can be seen in the 2018. Each year in September in a festival associated with the church candles are lit around the well which is one of the days access through the wood to it is allowed.

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Portugal’s Fonte do Ídolo Braga

In Braga can be found a fairly unique sacred spring called the Fonte do Idolo or Fountain of the Idol. Often it is claimed that springs have a pagan origin but little evidence of it can be seen. Here is a rare example of such a site.

The fountain flows from the base of a three metres wide and 1.20 metres high granite structure upon which is a carved human figure possibly a male with a beard dressed in a toga who appears to holding some undecipherable object in ‘his’ left arm possibly a cornucopia. Above appears a Latin inscription, CEL) ICVS FRONTO / ARCOBRIGENSIS / AMBIMOGIDVS / FECIT, which can be translated by “Celico Fronto, of Arcóbriga, Ambimógido fez (this monument) and to the right of the figure is a rectangular building cut into the rock with the worn figure of a human head, crowned with a triangular pediment engraved with a dove and a packet and other Latin inscriptions are engraved into the shape’s side. At the base of this niche sprouts a small spring.         .

It is the combination of the carvings and the Latin inscriptions which makes the site of significance indicating they date back to the era of Emperor Augustus in the 1st century.

What does it represent?

In 1895, archaeologist Jose Leite de Vasconcelos visited the garden where the spring was found and completed a study examining the inscriptions, although they had been encrusted in lime and deciphered the inscription to read re- TONGOE and hypothesized that the human figure on the left was the religious practitioner and the image within the structure the divinity. Now it is clear that the inscriptions read: CELICVS FECIT, which follows in the lower part of the niche : FRO (NTO), that is the name of the dedicator. To the left can read the name of a deity: TONGONABIAGOI.. In 1980-1, archaeologist Alain Tranoy examine the image and thought that the images were reversed in what they showed. Finally, António Rodríguez Colmenero firmly established the fact that it was two deities, a plural sanctuary and that it represented Tongo Nabiago and Nabia. Part of the Lusitanian divinity, that is indigenous indo-european people of western Iberia who were typically adopted by the Romans once the area was colonised. .

Of Tongo Nabiago it is clear he was a local cult and interesting his name by derive from Celtic root*tenge(o)- (Old Irish tongu “I swear”) and so he may have been associated with the swearing of oaths. This is particularly interesting as the swearing of oaths is not an unusual practice associated with springs. Nabia by comparison was part of the main pantheon and was associated with sacred springs being identified with Fortuna, Diana, Juno and Victoria being associated with health, wealth and fertility. There has been thought that near the spring was a temple associated to Nabia.

Recognition and restoration.        

The site was first marked in modern time on a map of the town from 1594 by Georg Braun and by 1695 the land was owned by the vicar of Sao Joao de Casteloes suggesting it had been adopted by the Catholic church and indeed a view was that it was Bishop of Urianópolis, Alves de Figueire who made it. Its first written description was in the 18th century, when the accountant  Jerónimo Contador de Argote, noted in his records that:

behind the church of São João Marcos is a garden, that is called “Idol”, in which is located a deep spring, which has a rock, which appears to be living rock, with a figure in long robes, that is five palms [in size]: it looks like [the figure] has a long bear, and part of his body is missing; his right hand is broken and on the left the form of a envolotório, and above the head there are letters…”

Much of the writing was obscured by encrusting lime. In 1862 King Pedro V came to examine the site and it was offered as a gift by its then owner, to be placed in a museum in the grounds of Quinta dos Falcoes, but it never happened and after going through several owners in 1936, the municipal government of Braga, acquired the land surrounding the fountain and it was then transferred this title to the State the following year, with repairs in 1952 and then in 2000-2001, a modernist building was constructed over the site with interpretation signage. Its future being secured as perhaps the most important ancient healing spring from the pre-Roman period in Europe.

The sacred spring of England’s first patron saint – searching for St Edmund’s Springs in East Anglia (part one): Old Hunstanton, Norfolk

“In Catholic times the devout clients of St. Edmund flocked to their crystal waters, as pilgrims journeyed to St. Winifred’s Well on the western side of the isle. Now, however, the holy wells of Hunstanton belong to the forgotten past. Farmers, indeed, for miles round send their water-carts to be filled at them, and one of the springs supplies the new town with its sparkling water ; but, though marvelous cures are said to be wrought at them, few recognise their miraculous power, and only now and then does a solitary pilgrim linger over the spot, and recall to memory the stranger prince who knelt there to pray for his country.”

James MacKinlay (1893) Saint Edmund King and Martyr: A History of His Life and Times with an Account of the Translation of His Incorrupt Body, Etc. From Original Mss

The ancient cross said to show pilgrims the way to the well but it didnt have a sign on it!

Who was St. Edmund

Despite being England’s first patron saint Edmund is only known only from two Saxon period sources: the Anglo Saxon Chronicle circa 877 – 899 and the minting of a commemoration coin from 890.The later suggests a figure of considerable importance but beyond of this, St Edmund’s life is full of miracles and a well-known martyrdom were written long after his death.

As a King of East Anglia he was perhaps less well-known to his people as Redwald, buried in Sutton Hoo in the mid 600s, by the late 800s, the King had been overtaken in importance by Mercia and Northumbria, but his standing up to and final death at the hands of the Vikings were an important part of the cultural mythos of the Saxon resistance perhaps. Not unsurprisingly for an early Kingly Saxon saint he has sacred springs associated with him.

The legend of St Edmund’s return

The first of the noted springs arose at Hunstanton a town proud of its St Edmund association. It is here that legend tells he arrived from Nuremberg, to claim the throne being nominated as the successor of Offa, as noted Allen Mawer, (1911). In his Edmund King of East Anglia is possibly apocryphal  This note withstanding John Lydgate in his Life of Sts. Edmund and Fremund, 1434 (translated by Horstmann (1881) says that on a safe arrival on dry land of East Anglia:

“In tokne that god herde his praier, Vpon the soil, sondy, hard and drie, Ther sprong bi miracle fyue wellis clier, That been of uertu, helthe and remedie Ageyn ful many straunge malladie.”

Geoffrey of Fountains Abbey too states in the The Youth of St Edmund how when Edmund and his companions returned to East Anglia from exile, they landed about a bowshot from the promontory of Maydenebure near Hunstanton. Here the prince knelt and prayed for his country at a spot afterwards distinguished for its fertility:

“and at the very place where he rose up from prayer, and mounted his horse, twelve sparkling springs broke out from the ground. They still run today, a wonder to all who see them, and then join together to trickle with a pleasant chuckling murmur into the salt sea. Many sufferers from disease have washed themselves with these waters and recovered their health. When the water is taken for the benefit of people living further away, if they are ill or for any other reason, it retains its healing power. And it so happened that, when St Edmund had won his crown, he liked this place best of all for its memories, and had a royal palace built on the rising ground near these springs”.

Geoffrey had lived at Thetford, compared to other historians not that far from Hunstanton, so he may well have learnt this story from tradition rather than from books.

The remains of the chapel tastefully restored but no spring there!

Will the correct number of springs reveal themselves?

White (1845) in his directory of Norfolk records that:

 “A well in the parish also bears the name of the name of the Royal martyr; but is sometimes called the Seven Springs”.

The number of springs varies according MacKinlay (1893) Saint Edmund King and Martyr: A History of His Life and Times with an Account of the Translation of His Incorrupt Body, Etc. From Original Mss who reports that the Gaufridus says twelve springs; Lydgate says five; Capgrave only states that “a fountain sprang up, curing many infirmities”.

The name the Seven Springs appears to have been a later name and of course seven springs are not uncommon across the British isles and have a cult significance. James MacKinlay (1893) states that Gaufridus:

“These springs, to this our own day excite the admiration of the beholder, flowing as they do with a continuous sweet and cheering murmur to the sea. Many sick wash in these fountains and are restored to their former health, and pilgrims carry the healing water to remote parts for the infirm and others to drink.”

Will the location of the springs please reveal themselves?

The site of these springs is debatable. The obvious location is the chapel near the lighthouse but if they were there there is no sign or perhaps they have now fallen into the sea. One possibly location is by the Old Church. This is a very plausible location and indeed there is a large duckpond in the location, another is a boggy woodland called the pools which may also be the source.

However, the most likely is that by the old Waterworks. Here the springs are still present in the garden of what is now a private dwelling in Old Hunstanton. The spring’s water was pumped to the water tower (now demolished) at Lincoln Street and was the town’s principle source.

The springs fill a considerable pool which flow out as a stream although a recent fence makes it nigh impossible to view them. This would fit with MacKinlay (1893) who notes that:

St. Edmund’s springs are situate about a quarter of a mile from the ancient and beautiful church of St. Mary in Old Hunstanton.”

It would be nice to have some signage to this, perhaps historically (if he did indeed land here) the most important of Hunstanton’s relics after the chapel.

The healing springs of Hampstead

In celebration of the stirling work done by the London Springs, wells and water ways Facebook group and the Fellowship of the Springs I’d thought I would explore Hampstead.  Extracted and revised from Holy Wells and Healing springs of Middlesex

In the Georgian period Hampstead was one of the playgrounds of a growing London Its clean air and open spaces was a major draw for the London society and a major addition was its waters, although compared to others their life was short.

Hampstead Wells a chalybeate water compared to Tunbridge Wells. Its water was bottled and sent to an Apothecary at the Eagle and Child in Fleet Street, although as Stanley Foord (1910) in his work Springs, Streams, and Spas of London notes the expense and difficulty of transport meant that this attempt of exploiting the spring was not very successful.  The water was extracted from the head spring or pond, called Bath Pond. This was a rectangular piece of water 40 feet wide and 20 feet deep, but filled in the 1880s.

Despite the lack of success, in 1701 John Duffield erected buildings to exploit the mineral spring, which were later on the east side of Wells Walk. Finally an Assembly Room and the Pump room were established on Well Walk. Springs, Streams, and Spas of London notes that:

“The Assembly or Ball Room, built by Duffield, was of large dimensions, measuring 36 feet by 90 feet, of which a length of 30 feet seems to have been divided by a partition from the other, and known as the Pump Room; the two rooms being thus under one roof, and situated near where the entrance to Gainsborough Gardens now is.”               

Furthermore, the Green Man tavern (renamed Wells tavern in 1849-50), a Chapel called Sion Chapel and gardens and bowling green were established. On the site of the Pump Room is a new red-brick house called Wellside, built in 1892, according was established. A number of medical experts gave evidence towards the springs’ efficacy. A Dr. Gibbons states that it was ‘not inferior to any of our chalybeate springs, and coming very near to Pyrmont in quality’ and he himself took the waters until his death in 1725. Dr. Soame a noted 18th century physician published a book ‘Hampstead Wells, or Directions for drinking the Waters’, calling the spring “the Inexhaustible Fountain of Health’ yet the wells were in decline. Finally, in 1802, an analysis of the water was made by Royal college of Surgeons member, John Bliss who wrote in Medical Review and Magazine (Vol. VI.) that the water:

“have been found very beneficial in chronic diseases, &c., and where there is general debility of the system.”                                                   

In 1804 Thomas Goodwin, a local surgeon discovered another medicinal spring, called New Spa at the south-east extremity of the Heath, near Pond Street describing his findings in ‘An Account of the Neutral Saline Waters recently discovered at Hampstead’. Stating the water had sulphate of magnesia, that the waters were like that of Cheltenham’s saline spa. Its exact location according to Foord (1910) is unclear but he believes it is where Hampstead Heath Train Station now stands, although Mr. Goodwin marks it farther north.

The Long Room, 90 feet by 36 feet wide, with 30 feet used as a pump-room, was converted in 1725 into a chapel being called Well Walk Chapel and being used until 1861-62, when the Rifle Volunteers (3rd Middlesex), hired the chapel for a drill hall, and during the refit basins and pipes were found in the north end being where visitors to the Spa, were supplied with water. Analyses of the Hampstead chalybeate water have been made over the years, Soame in 1734 describes it as having a taste of vitriol of iron and Monro (1770) a Treatise on Mineral Spring states it is a transient Chalybeate lighter than New River water that had been boiled, but heavier than distilled water. By 1870, water from Well Walks spring and that from the fountain on Well mark, on the west side near no 17, noted it was a chalybeate spring mixed with surface water, possibly because the original source was diverted. In around 1885 the public basin on the east side of Well Walk was removed and a new stone drinking fountain was placed by the Wells Charity on the opposite side. In Foord’s time the water could still be drunk, although a sign was on the structure warning against this. Although C.A. White (1910) Sweet Hampstead and its associations noted that in the 1850s:

  “it was quite common for working men from Camden and Kentish Towns, and places much farther off, to make a Sunday morning’s pilgrimage to Hampstead to drink the water, and carry home bottles of it as a specific for hepatic complaints and as a tonic and eye-wash.”

Sadly the well is now dry and despite an attempt to connect to the mains no water is accessible at the well.

The only surviving chalybeate spring in Hampstead is Goddison’s Fountain found can be found by following the path downhill from the east side of Kenwood House outside of the house grounds. The fountain is found on the left just as a pond appears on the right.  The present structure was built in 1929 as a monument to Henry Goddison who was one of the main campaigners involved in saving the Heath and Kenwood estate for the public. There is no evidence that the spring was exploited before this but it was likely. It certainly is now and it is common to see walkers slake their first there and others collect water in demijohns.

At Kenwood House there is a brick and domed Bath House, it is easily found at the steps leading to the café.  This was erected in the early 18th Century, it is believed by the Mansfield family, when they bought the house in 1754. Records show that they ordered marble fittings, purple tiles and oyster shells to decorate the niches. They probably bathed weekly or monthly. A sign on the inside of the door reads:

“The Cold Bath – The Cold Bath is fed by a natural spring of chalybeate water. It was built in the early 18th century when cold plunge bathing became fashionable and was considered a healthy pursuit. The Bath was neglected for many years, and had filed up with silt by the 1980s, when excavation work started. The marble linings had been stripped out and the sides were caving in. Enough evidence was found in excavation to reconstruct the marble lined bath. The dome was restored, and the walls re-plastered. The painted finish is speculative, based on the decorative schemes popular around 1800.”                                                       

It is designed as a plunge pool, being ovoid in shape with steps descending into the water at either side of the doorway. It resembles the structure, albeit smaller, of Birley Spa, near Sheffield (see Holy Wells and Healing springs of Derbyshire). The interior walls follow the ovoid shape and have three narrow niches set into the plaster work presumable arranged for statues. The bath water is supplied by a very copious chalybeate spring and is currently very full, but where this drains to is unclear. The site was derelict restored in the 1990s with the bath being full of debris.

Finally it is worth noting that there is a modern house called ‘Lady Well’ it may record a lost holy well but there is no evidence by a modern house name.

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Ayn Al Kasfah of Oman

One of the country’s most noted healing springs is that of Rustaq. These springs are both hot springs and Sulphur waters and they have been an invaluable source of local healing and water with the settlement forming around the spring head from ancient times, the waters irrigating orchards and other crops.. The Ayn Al Kasfah, waters reach around 450C, a temperature which does not vary through the year making them particularly invaluable considering the tradition that they have never ran dry, especially important in a dry and arid environment. Peering into the spring head its waters are a remarkable mixture of yellow and turquoise towards the centre with its central hole being a darker mysterious and somewhat foreboding place.

The spring head as can be seen from the photo from is surrounded by urbanisation beside a large mosque and acting much like a roundabout. It fills a large pool which is surrounded by a wall with steps down to the pool. At the source swimming is forbidden but a small distance away a channel or falaj runs away from the spring and along this are cubicles for those wishing to experience its waters.

Some curious cures

Its waters are said to cure those with cholesterol and blood pressure issues as well as help with the immunity and skin properties. It is claimed that they have some unusual properties in helping people to relax and sleep better perhaps as a consequence of the hot waters. .

The note that:

“Locals of the region who have benefitted from the hot springs for generations often tell visitors about how to make best use of the springs. For those looking to heal their ailing bodies, one should gradually settle their body into the water as the high temperature often takes a little bit of time to adjust to. Since the water is fairly warm, stay in the water for short intervals of around five to nine minutes before taking a break. This should be repeated at least three times or until one feels the pains reducing or can comfortably stay in the pool for longer.”

Near destruction of the spring

Visitors are very fortunate to still be able to visit these springs for they were nearly destroyed.
Abbasid governor Muhammad bin Nur during Abbasid era of the 750-1200s a regime which resulted in much destruction locally . He attempted to fill up the spring head and damn up the falaj. It was unsuccessful as the water burst forth somewhere else around 10 metres from the original spring in the location it does today. A common holy well legend motif and one wonders whether it was another example of a legend associated with an unpopular leader!  Whatever the truth, the waters of Rushtaq continue to be a wonder for the country.

Guest blog post: Ffynnon Leinw – Holy Well or natural wonder by Tristan Gray Hulse (part four)

It is a pleasure to present Tristan Gray Hulse’s fourth part of his monograph on Ffynnon Leinw. 

In his Commentarioli Llwyd had passed on immediately from the Cilcain spring to discuss St Winefride’s Well:

Nec procul hinc est celeberrimus ille fons a superstitioso Wenefridae virginis cultu nomen habens [&c] (Lhuyd 1562, 57).

True, he describes the powerful spring, but his main thrust is to note the well as a place for the “superstitious worshipping of the virgin Winefred”, where many cures are worked by drinking and bathing in the water (for this passage, see Schwyzer 2011, 116-17). He is here clearly describing, not simply a natural wonder, but what is in general understood as a “holy well”.

No-one from Llwyd to Pennant ever discussed Ffynnon Leinw in this manner; despite this, it is now very generally accounted a holy well (cf. e.g. Owen 1899; Jones 1954, 180; Davis 2003, 71). Llwyd, Powel, Camden, and the rest understood that they were following Giraldus’ account of a natural wonder, and wrote accordingly. In general uninterested in such “superstitious” survivals as holy wells, they may perhaps have neglected to record information on the Cilcain well which failed to echo Giraldus. But by the end of the seventeenth century the scope of antiquarian information gathering had considerably widened, and springs could now be considered, not simply as natural wonders, but as elements in the historical landscape. The national antiquities section of Lhwyd’s “Parochial Queries” (Query XIV) had asked for:

Names of the Lakes & remarkable Springs; & whether anything be noted of them extraordinary (Lhwyd 1909, xi);

and this resulted in the first important gathering of information – however incomplete and often frustratingly imprecise – on the holy wells of medieval Wales, in the Parochialia responses. After this period information on the old holy wells begins to be more widely reported. Pennant, for example, not only mentioned the ebbing and flowing of Ffynnon Leinw, but described it as “a long oblong well with a double wall round it” (Pennant 1810, 59-60); the first surviving hint of an artificial structure around the spring. (One wall, now vanished, surrounded the bathing tank, perhaps ensuring privacy; the tank was situated within a large rectangular walled enclosure.) Pennant’s account was copied almost verbatim (but without reference) into the first and second editions of the Cambrian Traveller’s Guide (Anon. 1808, no. 418; 1813, p. 911).

The natural spring described by Llwyd and the rest would have required no such structure, however wonderful its supposed ebbing and flowing was held to be. The elaborate structure hinted at by Pennant is explained in the entry for “Kîlken” in Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Wales (first ed., 1833).

Near Kîlken Hall, in the Vale of Nannerch, is the celebrated Fynnon Leinw, or “flowing well”, which Camden describes as flowing and ebbing with the tide; but this peculiarity has long ceased to distinguish it; it is a copious and limpid spring, and is much resorted to for bathing, for which purpose it has been inclosed, and is said to possess properties fully equal, if not superior, to those of the far-famed spring at Holywell (Lewis 1848, 448).

The Dictionary was edited for Lewis by the North Wales scholar Walter Davies (Gwallter Mechain: 1761-1849 – his role as editor is noted in Rees and Walters 1974, 165; and Stephens 1998, 169), so that there is no need to doubt the otherwise unnoticed use of the well for bathing for cures. It is of course possible that such a use was comparatively recent, perhaps in line with the eighteenth-century mania for discovering and exploiting new “spa” springs (though, if so, one would have expected to have encountered further mentions); but the elaborate structure surrounding the spring, with its tank for bathing for cures within a large walled enclosure (the enclosure walls still survive, though in ruins), is also reminiscent of a very large number of Welsh holy wells whose use is understood to date from the middle ages, even though, often enough, accounts of the ritual behaviour at these wells are not found before the nineteenth century. (Alexandra Walsham has shown how numbers of medieval holy wells in England survived the purge of sacred sites to become spas in the post-Reformation period: Walsham 2011, 395-414. A similar change in perceived status occurred at St Dyfnog’s Well at Llanrhaiadr, near Denbigh: e.g., Jones 1954, 68-70, 173.) The outer enclosure is much larger than those surviving at most other Welsh holy wells, and might thus indicate that large numbers of people seeking to bathe there for cures were once customary at Ffynnon Leinw.

For the last few years of his life, quite literally until his death in 1899, the Welsh folklorist the Revd Elias Owen worked on a book to be called The Holy Wells of North Wales (for Owen, see Anon. 1901). It remained unfinished, and has never been published. Eight pages of the manuscript, with an attached plan, deal with “Ffynon [sic] Leinw, an Ebbing and Flowing Well”. He quotes many of the earlier sources noticed here, along with further examples of supposed ebbing-and-flowing wells in England and Wales from a variety of sources; but his most valuable contribution is his own account of the well, which helps to substantiate the account in the Topographical Dictionary. Owen had visited the well on 25 October 1890.

It was overgrown with weeds and its sides were covered with nettles. Alder trees were growing around it. The double walls were still standing with the exception of a portion of the [enclosure] walls on the south side which have fallen near the outlet to the extent of 4 feet 5 inches. The well was filled with water which flowed out at the S.W. corner. Mrs Cartwright of Old Efel Parci gate [the turnpike gate, in nearby Hendre] told me she remembered the well and that it was once used for drinking purposes. The cistern was large and had two entrances to it both on the N. side of the well. The water was reached by means of three stone steps. These steps were not complete nor were they in position. The depth of water was from three to four feet. The water was cold and clear. The water was frequented by many for the purpose of bathing. Some five or six yards distance from the well was a small artificial lake, 35 yards in length and 15 yards wide, for fish. The lake was once kept in good order but it is not so now.

The Rev. James Jones, Rhydymwyn Vicarage, Mold, thus writes of the well in a letter dated 15 Nov. 1899:- “This well is now fed by surface water. It is dry every summer and its original source has been tapped by the Hendre Mine” (Owen 1899, 8).


There is one other piece of possible evidence in support of a suggestion that Ffynnon Leinw may have been a holy well, in addition to being a natural wonder. In 1623 Sir Thomas Mostyn married Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir James Whitelocke, of Chester. The couple lived in Cilcain, where the Mostyn family owned considerable property. In 1627/28 they were visited by Elizabeth’s brother Bulstrode (the date implied should fall between 1 January-24 March 1628; for Bulstrode Whitelocke, see Spalding 1975, and Whitelocke 1860). He stayed at a house which he calls Shoe, which is presumably the Cilcain gentry house noticed in the Parochialia as Plas Hugh (Lhwyd 1909, 80; today, called Plas Yw, to the west of Cilcain village). Whilst there, as his diary recorded (as usual, in the third person):

He went to view severall rarities & monuments, as St Katherines Well of which they report, That if any garbage or uncleane thing be cast into it, the water (as offended att the filth) will cease springing & become drye, & so continue till the next St Katherines day, after which, it begins to spring & fill again, till the like injury be again offered. & it hath water enough to drive a Mill.

He also viewed St Wynifreds Well, which they call Holywell [&c] (Spalding 1990, 56).

Noticing Whitelocke’s concern to visit local “rarities & monuments”, it is worth considering his likely sources for learning about these. In view of the fact that he follows his visit to “St Katherines Well” with one to the well at Holywell, it is perhaps relevant to note that accounts of St Winefride’s Well immediately follow accounts of the Cilcain well in Humphrey Lhwyd and Drayton; Speed notices Ffynnon Leinw immediately following his Holywell account; while accounts of both wells are found in Camden’s brief chapter on Flintshire.

“St Katherine” is certainly Catherine of Alexandria; no other saint of the name had anything approaching a popular cultus in medieval Britain, and no well is likely to have been named for any St Catherine in the post-Reformation period. (For Catherine of Alexandria, see e.g. Farmer 2003, 95-6; for her cult in Wales, Cartwright 2008, 149-75 – “5: Buched Seint y Katrin: The Middle Welsh Life of Katherine of Alexandria and her Cult in Medieval Wales”; the more usual spelling of the name is Catherine, but currently scholars studying her cultus prefer Katherine.) Supposedly a fourth-century martyr, it is unlikely that she ever existed historically. Her cult began around her purported relics at Mt Sinai in the ninth century, and was most probably introduced into Europe by returning Crusaders. Originally an essentially aristocratic cult, it eventually became one of the most popular of the later middle ages. In part, this was because of an incident recorded in her legend; as, for instance, in the account of her life composed c.1260 by Jacobus de Voragine, in his Legenda Aurea:

When she was led to the place of execution, she … prayed: “O hope and glory of virgins, Jesus, good King, I beg of you that anyone who honours the memory of my passion, or who invokes me at the moment of death or in any need, may receive the benefit of your kindness”. A voice was heard saying to her: “… Heaven’s gates are opened to you and to those who will celebrate your passion with devout minds” (Jacobus 1995, 339).

Because of this she was universally invoked against sudden or unprepared death (Duffy 1992, 175-6).

In England, 62 medieval churches were dedicated to her (Farmer 2003, 95); as were 31 holy wells (Rattue 1995, 71). Three surviving medieval churches in Wales have her as patroness, while a number of extinct chapels are also known to have borne her name (Cartwright 2008, 158-9). St Catherine’s church at Cricieth is likely to have replaced an earlier dedication to a native saint or saints, for there is a holy well near the church, Ffynnon y Saint [“the Saints’ Well”], “which only became associated with Katherine in the modern period” (ib. 159). There were or are however several wells bearing her name: the Parochialia notices a “F[fynnon] S[eint] y Katrin” in Mold parish (Lhwyd 1909, 93) and a “Fynnon St Katrin wrth Gaerhyn” at Caerhun (ib. 31); she had a well at Gresford (Jones 1995, 4, 31-2, 90-1, 138-9; there was a chapel of St Catherine in the church at the end of the middle ages); and there is a St Catherine’s Well near the site of her bridge-chapel and hermitage at Rudbaxton, in Pembrokeshire (for the bridge and chapel, RCAHM 1925, 316: § 921; knowledge of the well remains in the oral domain: inf. Julie Trier). (Of the wells, Francis Jones noticed only the dubious example at Cricieth: Jones 1954, 153.) Madeleine Gray has noticed former or surviving medieval images of St Catherine in Wales, in wall-paintings, glass, and sculpture; in North Wales she is/was shown in stained glass at Llangystennin, Gresford, Llandyrnog, Llansanffraid Glan Conwy, and Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd (Gray 2000, 27-8). To these Jane Cartwright adds a former window in Bangor cathedral, and an image on a tomb in Beaumaris parish church (Cartwright 2008, 155, 157). That St Catherine was, in at least some instances, a late-comer to the medieval ritual landscape might be shown from the example of Gresford. There, she had a chapel in the church, and a holy well. There was a chapel of St Leonard of Noblac elsewhere in the parish from c. 1165 (RCAHM 1914, 79, § 254; Cox 1970), with a nearby holy well of the saint (Jones 1995, 152, 138-9). Gresford church was substantially reconstructed in the later fifteenth century, and the Perpendicular font has an image of St Leonard (Gray 2000, 31, and 127 illus 26c). St Sytha/Zita is also depicted on the font, as well as appearing as a single figure in a window panel (ib. 31-2, and 125 illus. 25a, 127 illus. 26d), so she was presumably popular in Gresford at that period; but she never acquired a holy well. There is no image of St Catherine on the font, only her depiction, not as a single figure, but as one of a small group of other virgin martyrs in the great east window of 1500 depicting the whole court of heaven around the Trinity (ib. 28, 120 illus. 20a) – Gresford church is dedicated to All Saints. (The church had an image of All-Saints, to which pilgrimages were made, and there is a Well of All Saints in the parish: Jones 1995, 32; Lhwyd 1909, 144.)

Whitelocke’s “St Katherines Well” was clearly associated with the veneration of St Catherine, for a legend had been evolved to account for what was obviously its intermittent or periodic spring: if polluted (thus offending the saint) it dried up (cf. e.g. the legend attached to the well of St Trillo at Llandrillo, Merioneth: Jones 1954, 116), to re-emerge on or near St Catherine’s feastday (25 November). Identifying the location of the well is more problematic. There is no further reference to it as “St Katherines Well”. According to the Parochialia there was a Ffynnon Seint y Katrin somewhere in the extensive Mold parish, about which nothing is known beyond this mention and one other (see below). “St Katherines Well” was clearly in or close to Cilcain parish, where Whitelocke was staying. Beyond Ffynnon Fihangel, Ffynnon Leinw, and the re-appearance point of the river Fechlas, Tardd y Dŵr, there are no further named wells in Cilcain noticed in the relevant literature (but see Appendix). In Mold, the Parochialia failed to notice the fennon dessilio in Rhual township mentioned in a document of 1493, or the Ffynnon Rhual with which Ken Lloyd Gruffydd was disposed to identify fennon dessilio (Gruffydd 2000, 8; for Ffynnon Rhual, reconstructed as a baptistery by the Baptists in the late seventeenth century, see Gruffydd 1999, 78-80; Davis 2003, 85). The Parochialia also failed to notice the Ffynnon Fair in the Mold township of Nercwys (for which, see Williams 1846, 54), or the Ffynnon Fair in another Mold township, Rhual. (The only evidence for the latter is a field name, dole y fynnon fair, “Ffynnon Fair Meadow”, mentioned in 1634 in Trovarth MS 1576: see the online Archif Melville Richards. Two Ffynhonnau Fair in a single parish is distinctly unusual, but might be explained here by the facts that the ancient Mold parish was exceptionally large and that both Mold parish church and the Nercwys chapelry were and are dedicated to St Mary.) There is no trace of a “St Katherines Well”, or of a cult of St Catherine, in any other parish neighbouring upon Cilcain.

As the instance of Ffynnon Rhual/Dysilio indicates, some wells may have more than one name, or may change their name over time. If it was not a now utterly forgotten and unlocated spring, only one of these named wells local to Cilcain might be plausibly identified with the well visited by Whitelocke: Ffynnon Leinw. “St Katherines Well” had to have been within easy riding distance from Whitelocke’s temporary home at Shoe, in Cilcain. As Humphrey Llwyd had recorded, Ffynnon Leinw was known as a periodic spring. And Whitelocke was intent on viewing “rarities & monuments” in the area, and – via Llwyd, Powel, Camden, Speed, not to mention Giraldus Cambrensis – Ffynnon Leinw was one of the most famous rarities of North Wales.

Wells dedicated to the same saint in adjacent parishes might indicate a strong local cultus of St Catherine. However, it is not possible that the Mold Ffynnon Seint y Katrin and Ffynnon Leinw can be identified. An account of Mold parish published in 1819 has the following:

[T]here are three wells or springs of ancient note in the parish, viz. Ffynnon Maes Garmon […], Ffynnon St. Catrin, and Ffynnon y Bedi (Anon. 1819, 300);

and the Cilcain well Ffynnon Leinw, made famous by Camden, Pennant, and the rest, and still widely known in the early nineteenth century, could hardly have been confused with the Mold well of St Catherine, otherwise noticed only by Lhwyd but still identifiable in 1819.

It is probably also worth considering whether “St Katherines Well” (though the name is known seemingly only from Whitelocke) was not properly the late-medieval dedication of the Cilcain well, while its now universally accepted name was merely originally used as a description of the perceived physical properties of “St Katherines Well”: that is, as suggested by Professor Owen, “a flowing well” became imperceptibly “the flowing well”, to become finally (? perhaps via David Powel, ultimately) simply “Flowing Well” – y ffynnon a leinw > y ffynnon leinw > Ffynnon Leinw.

If the suggested identification of “St Katherines Well” as an alternative name for Ffynnon Leinw be accepted (one name recording the late-medieval dedication of the well, the other describing its physical properties), then it becomes possible to reconcile the “natural wonder” accounts of Ffynnon Leinw given by Llwyd, Powel, and Camden, with the “holy well” account of the well in Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary: neither natural wonder nor holy well, but both.


Tristan Gray Hulse (2018)



A single otherwise unused source known to me noticed two further named wells in Cilcain parish. Glenys Wynne, in her booklet Cilcain, published by the Cilcain W.I. in 1944, wrote:

The village depended once for its water supply on St Mary’s well near “White Cottage.” This was once regarded as a holy well. Another well that is worthy of note if only for the fact that it is marked on the Ordnance Map is “Ffynnon y Gweithiwr” – “The Workman’s Well.” It is to be found on the mountainside [presumably either Moel Famau or its spur Ffrith Mountain is intended] roughly opposite the lane leading to “Ty Newydd” […] Children were taken to this well for a cure from childish ills, and even whooping cough was considered cured after a picnic meal here (Wynne 1944, 14).

As the well noticed by Edward Lhwyd as “Fynnon mihangel” is situated on the roadside almost opposite the house still called White Cottage, on a lane running westwards from the village, it must be certain that Wynne’s “St Mary’s well” was actually that more properly named for St Michael. The explanation here would seem to be that found in association with numbers of other wells in Wales: by the later eighteenth century, presumably because of the sheer number of Ffynhonnau Fair found all across the country, there developed a tendency to call any Welsh holy well a “Ffynnon Fair”, using thus a particular term in a generic sense. In illustration, the Revd John Evans’ 1812 book The Beauties of England and Wales may be cited for its examples. Discussing the settlements of the early Welsh hermit-saints, Evans wrote:

These in Wales were designated by the name of Llan […] Most had generally near them some spring, or well, denominated a Ffynnon vair; the waters of which, according to the estimation of the saint, for his communication with the Deity, were held in repute for their salutiferous effects (Evans 1812, 380-1).

His work offers numbers of examples of this use of “Ffynnon Fair” as a generic: for instance, at Clynnog Fawr, the “holy well dedicated to St Beuno” is also described as “the neighboring Ffynnon vair” (ib. 374); while St George’s Well at Llan Sain Siôr is “a ffynon vair, or holy well, whose salutiferous qualities were ascribed to the tutelar saint [i.e., George, not the Blessed Virgin]” (ib. 531); etc.. It seems significant that this confusion over names and original functions coincided in time with the swift and country-wide abandonment of the earlier para-religious and folk-medicinal usages of holy wells, in tandem with the (usually unsuccessful and temporary) promotion of numerous pseudo-scientifically accredited spas. (It is entirely possible that numbers of Ffynhonnau Fair across Wales, with little or no attestation beyond the name, acquired their present names in this manner, and had no original association with the cult of our Lady. In this way older and original names may have been lost; this is certainly worth consideration where older parishes and churches preserve a dedication to a native or universal saint, but where the parish has preserved no memory of a well named for this native or universal patron. Similarly, the recognition that Ffynnon Fair could on occasion be used as a generic might be of help in determining an original name where it is one of two or more names attached to a single well; for example, at Gwyddelwern, where Ffynnon Fair is one of four names recorded for a well – see Jones 1954, 191. It might also be of use in determining why there were two Ffynhonnau Fair in Mold parish.) In Cilcain, the suggestion must be that the old Ffynnon Fihangel, recorded in 1698 by Edward Lhwyd, later came to be categorised – as in the examples noticed by Evans – as “a ffynon vair, or holy well”, this Welsh generic over time being Englished as “St Mary’s well”, as recorded by Glenys Wynne. Lhwyd’s account of “Kilken” was finally published in 1909 (Lhwyd 1909, 79-81, with “Fynnon mihangel” noted on p. 81; he also recorded that the parish wakes were celebrated on a feast of St Michael – “Their wakes gwyl Vihangel Vechan”: p. 79 – which confirms the well dedication), and this has resulted in the old name being definitively re-established, and the fact that, for a time, it was also known as a Ffynnon Fair/St Mary’s Well has now been completely forgotten.

Realistically, Ffynnon Fihangel is too far from Cilcain village ever to have been its regular source of water. If Wynne’s statement was anything other than a guess, it might have been a decayed memory of water having once been taken to the village on particular occasions; and if so, then it might have been taken to the church for baptisms. This certainly happened elsewhere in north-east Wales, as is indicated in one of a number of excerpts published in 1885 from a now-unidentifiable manuscript of the early eighteenth century.

From the localities named it is evident that they relate to the diocese of St Asaph, and they look as if they were taken from the Returns of Rural Deans on some of the ecclesiastical uses of their parishes (Anon. 1885, 154).

One of the excerpts reads as follows:

If there be a “Ffynnon Vair” (well of our Lady) or other saint in the parish, the water for baptism in the font is fetched from thence. Old women are very fond of washing their eyes with the water after baptism (ib. 150).

The lost manuscript may perhaps have been excerpted from ruridecanal reports for Thomas Pennant, who printed this passage in the second volume of his Tours in Wales, in 1781. Certainly a manuscript containing this quotation once belonged to Pennant, as it afterwards came into the hands of John Brand, who cites it as his source for the identical passage which he quoted in his Popular Antiquities (Brand’s Introduction was dated 1795, but the book was first published in 1813).

Nicholas Carlisle reported that the custom had until recently been observed at Ffynnon Armon, at Llanfechain (Carlisle 1811, art. “Llan Fechain”), while the Revd John Williams (Ab Ithel) wrote that the practice had been observed at Ffynnon Fair, in Nercwys, in the memory of persons then living (Williams 1846, 54). Francis Jones wrote: “Another ancient custom was the use of water drawn from holy wells for baptism” (Jones 1954, 81), and implied that it was once common throughout Wales, referencing the custom at various other wells (ib. 82, 119, 150, 152, 189, 197, 198, 207, 210). But, aside from the Llanfechain well (he missed that at Nercwys), none of these references predate the 1890s, and cannot be relied on. Far from being a pan-Welsh custom, it appears from the evidence to have been restricted to north-east Wales. It was once in use at nearby Nercwys, and it is certainly not impossible that it was once observed in Cilcain as well; but there is no real evidence, beyond the fact that no other explanation of Wynne’s assertion suggests itself.

I have failed to find any other reference to or evidence for Ffynnon y Gweithiwr.



It is a real pleasure to be able here to thank the following: Professor Hywel Wyn Owen, for unscrambling the complexities of the nameform Ffynnon Leinw for me; Professor Jane Cartwright, for discussions and comment on the medieval cultus of St Katherine in North Wales; Dr Shaun Evans, who first drew my attention to the mention of St Katherine’s Well in Whitelocke’s diary, thus sparking my interest in Ffynnon Leinw; Julie Trier, for locating and afterwards guiding me to the supposedly lost St Catherine’s Well at Rudbaxton; and – for innumerable (and often interminable) conversations on this and all other well-related topics – Janet Bord, dear friend, and all-round good egg.

An earlier draft of this paper was epitomised and translated into Welsh by Howard Huws, and published in the newsletter of Cymdeithas Ffynhonnau Cymru, the Welsh Holy Wells Society: Tristan Gray Hulse, “Ffynnon Leinw, Cilcain”, Llygad y Ffynnon 41 (Nadolig 2016) 9-11, & 42 (Haf 2017) 5-6. My thanks to Howard for the supererogatory care taken over this doubtless thankless task.



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Wynne, Glenys, Cilcain, Mold: Cilcain W.I., 1944

The Holy and Ancient Wells and Springs of Gloucester: St Cynburgh’s Well

The Cotswold area is justly noted amongst those who visit holy and healing wells as being a notable place, as can be seen from this blog. What is not very well known is that Gloucester itself had a notable well that of St Cynburgh’s Well. It is not mentioned in Ancient wells, springs and holy wells of Gloucestershire by Skyking-Waters (1923) curiously enough as indeed is its legend of how it became holy.

How did the well arise?

St Cynburgh’s Well is recorded in a local legend recorded in a Gloucester Abbey Lectionary, 15th century which is summarised in Historia Monasterii Sancti Petri from 1863–7. It tells how St Cynburgh, vowed to a holy life, fled from her royal family rather than marry. She arrived in Gloucester where she began working for a baker, whose wife was so jealous that she murdered the princess by chopping of her head and threw the body into a nearby well. When the baker, returning home and missing his assistant, he called for her and heard her voice answering from the well.

Miracles at the well

Her body was recovered and buried near it. A chapel was built over the well and it became a site of miracles and a medieval hospital was established at the site. This recorded as being dedicated in 1147, and appears in later records from 1267 onwards, with miracles of healing recorded there; it was near the city wall by the south gate. Archbishop Courtney ordered a new translation in 1390 and when the establishment was finally suppressed in the 1500s a local MP Sir Thomas Bell converted the site to an alms-house called St Kyneburgha’s.

Who was St Cynburga?

The saint behind the legend is a bit of a mystery. She is thought to have been around in the late 600s. It is believed that she was the sister King Osric the founder of St. Peter at Gloucester Monastery. The King appointed his sister, Cyneburga, as the first Abbess of Gloucester. However, there was another St. Cyneburga of Castor in Northamptonshire and it possible they are one and the same. However, how the legend arose based on the association with the monastery is unclear.

A relics of the holy well?

A lead box in Gloucester museum is a curious relic of the saint’s veneration. Said to have come from Woodchester Church it depicts the saint and another local saint said to have been the last Roman Bishop of the town, St Aldate. It is believed to have been used either to hold relics or as a container for holy water.  Did it contain water from her well one wonders and as such is the only relic surviving from this site.

A modern remembering of the well

This relic in Gloucester museum was at one time the only remembrance of this holy well then in 2011 an art installation was installed. Part of an £7m project which linked the city centre with the docks is the 16m (53ft) Kyneburgh Tower will was built in Kimbrose Square designed by British sculptor Tom Price to design it stating that according to the BBC New website it:

” told the story of a girl’s journey from life to death and beyond…..I intended it to be both a spectacle and a place for quiet contemplation. Both artworks function like a metaphysical sundial. They point to the invisible histories we rarely seek out, but which permeate the landscape around us.”


The Kyneburgh Tower, Gloucester

They recorded that:

“The artworks will be dedicated by the Dean of Gloucester Cathedral, the Very Reverend Stephen Lake, and the Reverend Canon Nikki Arthy as part of the official opening ceremony.”

Perhaps a Dean who may have stood at a site once frequented by those seeking the holy waters of this lost and lamented holy well.




An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Osogobo Osun shrine Nigeria

At the source of the Oṣun Riveri is the Osun Shrine on the outskirts of Osogbo in southwestern Nigeria. Along the river are sculptures and sanctuaries in the last of the Yoruba’s sacred forests a site now identified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The shrine is a major African pilgrimage site. The Osun/Osogbo grove is where the Osun goddess, also known as Yeye Osun or Oshun Kole resides. It is believed that the river arose when a frightened women turned into a river. The river is so named from Osun or Oshun a Orisha. Osun is a river goddess who was one of the wives of Sango who was the Yoruba God of Thunder noted for being able to give barren babies

The Oshun goddess

Described as the most complex of the Yoruba-Lukumí pantheon deities. It is believes that Oshun embodies the very substance of the water we drink with her fan abebe (deriving from the verb ‘to beg).Oshun Kole is described as:

the gifted, beautiful, affectionate, sensual goddess of luxury, and pleasure, ruler of oceans and fresh waters…she is called the giver of life, mother of orishas, and possessor of feminine virtues; she guards women during pregnancy. Oshun walks many paths: she is given to industrious intuitions, manages finances, and loves music and dancing. As Kole Kole, Oshun represents children and the poor and needy. She typifies the ‘sensuous saint’ and controls the knowledge and art of sexuality and lovemaking in human pleasure and marriage. Legend has it that Oshun used her charm to lure Oggun out of his wild forest life into the city. She seduces other male Orisha lovers although her main consort is Shango. Ogun loves everything yellow and her ornaments and elekes (necklaces) reveal expensive tastes.”

Her association with fertility allows her to be described as the mother of many children and that barren women would visit the shrine. Due to the dispora from Nigeria travelling across the world the deity is recognised globally often associated with the Virgin Mary as in Cuba manifesting itself with their patron saint. Therefore pilgrims come from as far as Peru, USA, Brazil, Germany and the UK.

The development of the shrine

The shrine sits on the banks and is comprised of wooden deities who stare out from the inner sanctumUNESCO record that:

A century ago there were many sacred groves in Yorubaland: every town had one. Most of these groves have now been abandoned or have shrunk to quite small areas. Osun-Osogbo, in the heart of Osogbo, the capital of Osun State, founded some 400 years ago in southwest Nigeria, at a distance of 250 km from Lagos is the largest sacred grove to have survived and one that is still revered.

The dense forest of the Osun Sacred Grove is some of the last remnants of primary high forest in southern Nigeria. Through the forest meanders the river Osun, the spiritual abode of the river goddess Osun. Set within the forest sanctuary are forty shrines, sculptures and art works erected in honour of Osun and other Yoruba deities, many created in the past forty years, two palaces, five sacred places and nine worship points strung along the river banks with designated priests and priestesses.

The new art installed in the grove has also differentiated it from other groves: Osogbo is now unique in having a large component of 20th century sculpture created to reinforce the links between people and the Yoruba pantheon, and the way in which Yoruba towns linked their establishment and growth to the spirits of the forest.

The restoration of the grove by artists has given the grove a new importance: it has become a sacred place “

 The Nigerian Bulletin records its origins:

“The origin and story of Osun festival started over 700 years ago when a group of settlers led by one great hunter, Olutimehin settled on the bank of the river to escape the famine in their former dwelling place. Osun, the water goddess was said to have appeared to Olutimehin and requested him and his group to move up some bit to higher ground – the present Osogbo town. Osun pledged to protect the group and make their women fruitful if they would offer an annual sacrifice to her in return. The group agreed, vowing to sacrifice annually to the goddess trusting that she would honour her promise. Today, the annual sacrifice has gone past just offering sacrifices to a river goddess, it has become an international celebration of cultural events attracting people from all over the world.”

Account in describes the ritual upon reaching the shrine:

“Before our entrance to the courtyard, the Chief priestess was seen appeasing the gods of the river.”Yeye ooo, Omi ooo,” she said in Yoruba, meaning “My mother, water” just as a way of reverencing the goddess that resides in the water. On entering the courtyard, we were made to put away our shoes as it nobody was allowed to wear shoes inside the sacred grove, as our cameras were barred from entering the Osun shrine where sacrifices and requests are being made.”

The account records that:

“During our visit, a woman and her husband were seen with the chief priestess, going towards the river to appease the goddess of many children. And after whatever sacrifice that is made to appease the goddess of the river, our correspondents gathered that nobody is allowed to look back as anyone who does will live with whatever consequences that follows”

The shrine and its waters is therefore still an important site indicating the importance of Sacred pre-Christian waters to the modern often Catholic African and South American population. It was probable that originally the shrine demands a real watery sacrifice at times and that the association with August conveniently near the feast of Mary allowed a more convenient personal sacrifice to be given. Today despite slight modernisations it is a powerful place of faith.