Ancient, Healing and Holy Wells of County Durham
by Laurence Hunt
Since September 1985 I have attempted to identify and visit the holy wells of County Durham. Primarily using large scale maps and early literary sources, I have been able to ‘discover’ nearly 30 wells, of which details follow. Whilst I have no doubt that this list is not comprehensive. it represents the first ‘county list’ for Durham of which I am aware and covers all the sites of which physical remains are substantial.
Few of the wells are impressive in terms of their present day condition – St Cuthbert’s, Durham and Gainford Spa being by far the most rewarding to visit – but many have interesting histories and associated legends, and most are in attractive surroundings. I came to Durham with the popular ‘Southerner’s’ misconception that the county is all coal pits and mines. My travels by bus, bike and on foot have shown me how wrong this view is, and introduced me to some very attractive rural landscape.
At the risk of upsetting some readers I will restrict this survey to the new County Durham, thus ignoring several notable wells now transferred to Tyne and Wear (e.g. Worm Well near Penshaw, and Bede’s Well at Hebburn).
Unfortunately, County Durham straddles four Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 maps, sheet numbers 87, 88, 92 and 93, but these maps are nevertheless very useful in tracking down obscure locations. Grid references, and the map number in brackets, are given for each well. A sketch map is also given indicating the approximate locations of the wells listed.
Approximate Location of Featured Wells
- Bradley Spa (NZ 106 366 – sheet 92)
Two miles east of Wolsingham, just north of the A689. A former sulphurous spa, now a camping and caravan site.
- Brancepeth (circa NZ 22 37 – sheet 93)
‘In the vicinity of this parish is a medicinal spring of the vitriolic kind, and another is strongly sulphurous.’ – George Allan, 1824. This reference could relate to Holywell Beck or Rattling Well, both about 2 miles from the village, or may refer to other local springs of which no evidence survives.
- Butterby Springs (NZ 277 394 – sheet 93)
These famous mineral springs were first recorded in 1607. Reddish salty water bubbled to the surface on the banks of the River Wear and locals evaporated the water to produce salt. Opposite the salt spring was a sulphur spring, the water being analysed in 1807 by W.R. Clanny of Durham, and claimed to be of great virtue. The banks of the river for some distance either side of these springs showed many oozings, and A Handbook for Travellers in Durham and Northumberland, 1873, refers to a ‘sweet spring’ in addition to ‘the salt water spring and the sulphur wells’ at Butterby. The sulphur spring was used as a remedy for the diseases caused by the deleterious fumes arising from smelting and refining in the nearby lead works early in the last century.
Mining towards the end of the last century is reported to have disturbed the flow of water from these springs. Today there are no obvious signs of any of the springs, although the site is delightfully secluded, and a short stretch of public footpath leads, perhaps significantly, to the river’s edge just to the east of Low Butterby, and then stops abruptly. It is certainly difficult to imagine the ‘great numbers of persons (who) frequent these wells in order to drink the water’, as recorded in 1824 by George Allen, in such a quiet spot today.
- Dinsdale Spa (NZ 349 102 – sheet 93)
Although never as famous as the nearby Croft Spa, just over the border in Yorkshire, this sulphurous spring was much resorted to early in the last century. It is reputed to have been discovered in 1789 whilst boring for coal, when at a depth of 72 feet, water burst forth with a strong sulphurous smell and smoke. A bathing house was built for the use of visitors in 1797, most of whom stayed at the nearby mini-resort of Middleton One Row which grew up to cater for their needs. The water was analysed by Sir C. Scudamore. who found a gallon contained 6 grains of muriate of magnesia, 28½ grains of muriate of soda, 64 grains of sulphate of soda, 119 grains of sulphate of lime, and 12½ grains of carbonate of lime. (Source – A Handbook for travellers…, 1873).
The site of the spa is marked on the map, and is today occupied by a private house built 14 years ago, and incorporating the one surviving wall of the original building. Two rounded arched windows are believed to be part of the original structure. The present owner showed me where sulphurous water still emerges below the house near the riverside, and also spoke of a ‘Roman Well’, located nearer the village of Dinsdale, but recently destroyed by agriculture.
- Durham City, Banks Mill Spring (NZ 272 422 – sheet 88)
‘A few yards past the Banks Mill, on the west side of the Wear, a very powerful chalybeate spring issues from a fissure in the rock. It is somewhat extraordinary that the spring has hitherto remained unnoticed by the tourists who have described the adjoining scenery. The well is much frequented, and has in many cases proved highly efficacious. The water in colour and taste resembles that of the celebrated springs of Harrogate and Scarborough.’ [George Allen, 1824]. Sadly, nothing remains of this well today.
- Durham City, Flass Well (circa NZ 27 42 – sheet 88)
I can find no record or evidence of this well other than the legend that it is haunted, as quoted in Sacred Waters by Janet and Colin Bord, by Jane Ramshaw. This young girl was evidently killed in the late 18th century by an unknown murderer and haunted the surrounding area.
- Durham City, Galilee Well (NZ 272 422 – sheet 88)
This can be seen on the path from Windy Gap to Watergate, adjacent to the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral. The west end of the cathedral is actually built over the well. A metal grill covers a large hole in the pathway, with a stone surround and a very low archway in the cathedral wall, also grilled. The well is today dry, like the adjacent St Cuthbert’s Well, Durham City. The well was not known for any particular virtues, but is a notable, although not widely known, example of a Christian building over a well.
- Durham City, St Cuthbert’s Well (NZ 272 422 – sheet 88)
Situated a short way down the steep banks of the River Wear near the Galilee Well, and accessible by a narrow path. The largest stone surround of any holy well in the county. A slight change in slope may be detected here – steep for sandstone, less steep for shale – the spring emerges at the junction. It has been intermittent in flow since the strata were breached by the new university library extension nearby, and has been dry on every visit I have made since September 1985. A large sandstone surround with a rounded head-height archway has been built over the well. An inscription over the archway reads ‘FONS: CUTHBERT‘ with a date that could be interpreted either as 1600 or 1660.
The County Archaeologist, Peter Clack, told me that nothing is known of the well’s history, and he doubts the antiquity of the well, suggesting it received its dedication from that of the nearby cathedral. It seems odd that so imposing a structure should have so little known about it. Certainly today, I encountered a surprising lack of knowledge and interest in the well, which is in need of some consolidation, and is unfortunately heavily defaced by graffiti.
- Durham City, St Mary’s Well (NZ 271 419 – sheet 88)
Several 19th century guides refer to this well as being of ‘great repute’ and ‘much resorted to’. It is described as being located on the south bank of the River Wear below South Street. The only well of which anything survives in such a location is situated a short distance from Prebend’s Bridge by the side or a path leading up to South Street. It consists of an arc of stone walling with a small hollow where water collects. Whether this is in fact St Mary’s Well I have been unable to verify. It tends to be known as ‘South Street Well’ today.
- Durham City, St Oswald’s Well (NZ 275 419 – sheet 88)
An enchanting spot only a minute’s walk from the noise and traffic of New Elvet in the City. Situated just below the footpath leading from St Oswald’s churchyard to Prebend’s Bridge. Reached down a narrow, steep footpath about 20 yards after entering the trees below the church tower. Today this well consists of a large cavern cut into the sandstone rock outcrop part way down the steep, well-wooded banks of the Wear overlooking the Cathedral. A small rock ledge at the front of the cavern dams up a pool of water, the overflow pouring over the ledge and down to the river below. The cavern is about 3 metres deep and 1½ metres wide and high. A copious flow of water still issues from the back of the cavern despite the proximity of 19th century mine workings. According to the church guide the well once had an arcaded well-head, but this was destroyed by 19th century vandals. One can only hope that the nearby St Cuthbert’s Well does not suffer a similar fate this century.
- Gainford Spa (NZ 162 174 – sheet 92)
If as a visitor to County Durham you only had time to visit one well, I would have to recommend this one. Situated three-quarters of a mile west of the village of Gainford (itself well worth a visit), by the side of the River Tees, it is reached down a steep path leading from the A67 Barnard Castle road, just behind a roadside seat. It can also be reached by following a longer, but flatter riverside path which leaves the A67 near the outskirts of the village.
At the riverside, surrounded by mature trees, stands a large double font-like structure; a small inner bowl with a central hollow from which water gushes up, placed on a wider, flatter bowl with two overflow spouts, leading to a rock-cut groove taking the water splashing to the river. The structure is carved from rock and is covered with a glistening slime. Water issues forth with great force (you cannot stop the flow by placing your hand over the central hollow, however hard you try) and is very cold. Names and other graffiti, much of it dating back to the last century and beyond, can be traced on the nearby river-cliff. In the 18th and 19th centuries Gainford gained the reputation of a small spa, but it never became as popular as Dinsdale (c.f.) and Croft (N. Yorkshire) further east. The sulphurous water was much used by country villagers and remains drinkable today. A very special spa, with a strong atmosphere of veneration and tranquillity.
- Gainford, St Mary’s Well (NZ 169 167 – sheet 92)
Compared to the nearby spa, a rather dull little spring, flowing from a steep bank below the church into a stone trough and then away to the river. The surroundings have laudably recently been tidied up, but at present look rather disturbed. Once used for baptisms in the church, and reputedly never-failing.
- Halliwell Beck (circa NZ 23 22 – sheet 93)
A small stream, whose name is probably a derivative of Holywell, which flows around the west edge of Heighington Village, passing Halliwell House Farm. No building at the source, and no evidence to explain the name survives.
- Holywell, Weardale (NZ 828 432 – sheet 87)
The name of a house opposite the Killope Wheel Museum, upper Weardale, near the border with Cumbria.
- Holywell Beck, Brandon (circa NZ 24 38 – sheet 93)
The headwaters of this stream are now piped and emerge through a tunnel under the A690 at NZ 236 383, then pass through a pleasant wooded dell. Further downstream at NZ 250 375 is Holywell House. The occupant told me that the stream, and her house, received their names from a spring that once flowed into the stream from a field below the house at circa NZ 252 374. The spring, now destroyed by farming, reputedly marks one of the resting places of St Cuthbert’s body en route from Lindisfarne to Durham via Chester-le-Street and Ripon. Today water still emerges at NZ 253 373 pouring from the bank of Holywell Beck near the bridge that carries the track from Holywell House to Sunderland Bridge over the beck.
- Holywell Burn, Willington (circa NZ 18 34 – sheet 92)
A small stream that flows into the river Wear, south of Willington. Its source lies near the poorly defined footpath that links Annapoorna and Rumby Hill. The spring would appear to lie in a corner of a field near this path, where there are a few stones lying in the hedge and under some trees, but these are probably the remains of a field boundary.
- Holywell House (NZ 177 215 – sheet 92)
A house, 3 miles east of Staindrop. Unvisited.
- Ladywell, Blanchland (NY 964 505 -sheet 87)
No doubt associated with the Premonstratensian Abbey that was founded here in the 12th century, the site of this well lies near the car park north-west of the former village school, now an art gallery. I could find no trace of the well, nor any local memory of it. The village, lying on the Durham/Northumberland border, is well worth a visit with much evidence of the abbey surviving in the present day buildings.
- Ladywell, Hamsterley (NZ 124 308 – sheet 92)
Adjacent to a footpath which connects the village to the isolated parish church half a mile to the east, this well commands attractive views south over the Yorkshire Dales. It consists of a spring in the side of a small valley, above the Linburn Beck. A few small stones line the back of a small hollow in the hillside. Water emerges from a gap in these stones and forms a pool before flowing off as a rivulet down the valley. The water is clear and copious, and the setting unspoilt.
- Lively Well (NZ 151 312 – sheet 92)
On the banks of the river Wear below the level crossing at Witton le Wear. A footpath leads down from the level crossing. Whether of any great age or repute I was unable to determine, but this named well, consisting of a spring at the head of a small overgrown channel leading to the river Wear, is attractively sited and worth a visit. Its water is far from ‘lively’, however, being muddy and stagnant.
- Rattling Well (NZ 203 390 – sheet 93)
Another named well of unknown age or virtue, situated in a small wood, adjacent to the minor road leading from Brancepeth to Baal Hill.
- Reddings Well (NZ 399 336 – sheet 93)
Situated on farmland, 3 miles east of Trindon, north of the minor road to Elwick. Unlikely to be of any great age or noteworthiness.
- Roman Well, Binchester (NZ 212 312 – sheet 93)
Situated a mile north of Bishop Auckland, adjacent to the site of the Roman fort of Binchester (‘Vinovia’). of which little remains, except an excavated bath house open to the public. Shown on old large scale maps, but today the site is densely wooded and contains numerous stagnant pools of water. A pipeline runs through the wood which may well have disturbed the spring. Presumably the well dates back to Roman times, there being no source of water on top of the hill, nearer the fort.
- Shotley Bridge Spa (NZ 092 538 – sheet 88)
This was once a much resorted to and famous well; much documentary evidence survives but the site is now a grassy field next to the cricket ground. The original spring, known as ‘Hally well’, was much resorted to by local people, it being considered an infallible remedy for scurvy and scrofulous complaints – an attribute which is embodied in a local saying;
‘No scurvy in your skin can dwell
If you only drink from the Hally Well.’
The water used to stand in a natural basin formed by surrounding hillocks of moss and grass. Early in the last century the site was drained, but the site was rediscovered by a Mr Richardson later in the 19th century, and he set about turning the spring into a spa-well. He built a rustic thatched shelter over the spring, the water flowing into an iron-stained stone basin. Despite many glowing accounts of the virtues of the water by various learned Victorian doctors, it never really became as fashionable as Harrogate or Croft further south. Dr A.B. Granville noted that the water changed in a peculiar way when left to stand in a glass – ‘at first it is perfectly clear and transparent… in an hour or two it turns slightly opalescent. This appearance becomes gradually more intense, and assumes at the same time a brownish tinge… while the inner side of the glass and bottom is covered by myriads of air bubbles.’ An analysis of the water by a Mr West of Leeds found large amounts of Chlorides of Sodium and Calcium, Carbonate of Soda, and traces of Chloride of Magnesium, Carbonate of Iron, Silica, Bromine, Iodine and Potash. According to Richard Ellis (A Medical Guide…, 1883), the spa’s decline was attributed to the opening of the steelworks at nearby Consett, it being believed that this led to the deterioration of its waters. With the closure of the Consett Steelworks, perhaps the spa awaits a second rediscovery and renovation. The illustration is from A History of Shotley Bridge Spa.
- Virgin Well, Chester-le-Street (NZ 287 519 – sheet 88)
A natural spring emerging from a hillside overlooking Chester-le-Street. Situated in a field opposite the lodge to Lumley Castle on the A183 Houghton le Spring road from Chester-le-Street. Little remains to be seen except a few stones and a marshy patch of hillside – and wide views to the west. The name could reflect a former dedication to the Virgin Mary, or perhaps was once a divining well where the behaviour of the water was used by young girls to predict marriages and/or partners.
- Wolsingham Holy Well (NZ 077 378 – sheet 92)
By far the largest structure over any well in Durham, this well looks more like a cow byre than a well when first encountered. It is to be found on the north side of the lane that leads from the inn at the northern edge of the village to the hospital. A rather sluggish supply of water trickles into the well building, which despite its size and the attractive use of local stone in its construction, is plain and unadorned. The well was repaired early this century, though the repointing of the walls looks very recent. As with so many Durham wells, Wolsingham holy well appears to have no legends or written history, solely being known for the purity of its water.
Allen, G., (1824); A Historical and Descriptive View of the City of Durham and its Environs.
Anon, (1873); A Handbook for Travellers in Durham and Northumberland.
Anon, (n.d. but C19th); A History of Shotley Bridge Spa.
Bord, J. & C., (1985); Sacred Waters: Holy Wells and Water Lore in Britain and Ireland.
Durham City Trust, (1981); The River Banks (City Trail no.2).
Ellis, R., (1883); A Medical Guide to the Principal Health Resorts of Northumberland and Durham.
Thompson, H., (1976); Durham Villages.
Text & Illustrations © Laurence Hunt (1987)
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