Cumbrian Well Walking

by Lesley Park

The wells of rocky Cumberland
Have each a saint or patron,
Who holds an annual festival,
The joy of maid or matron.

And to this day,
as erst they wont,
The youths and maids repair,
To certain wells on certain days,
And hold a revel there,

Of sugar-stick and liquorice,
With water from the spring,
They mix a pleasant beverage,
And May-day carols sing.

     So runs an old Cumbrian doggerel rhyme, The June Days’ Dingle, telling of the old well waking festivities held in those parts in the days of yore; but alas, even in Cumbria where old customs die hard they are a thing of the past.

These ceremonies used to be common throughout the whole of the district, but the early nineteenth century saw moves to stop them as they ‘lead to mischief’ (tell me more!). The festivities were slow to disappear, and there is evidence that some lasted into the first decade of this century. According to some authorities, the custom of ‘well waking’ began in the days when relatives and friends would keep vigil by wells in the hope of bringing cures to sick loved ones. Later there came the practice of holding fairs and markets at these places. These in turn evolved into pleasure fairs and were suppressed by the clergy because there were too many naughty things going on.

Finally, all that remained were the shaking bottle ceremonies which are to be found connected with holy wells all over the country. Pieces of liquorice were put into a bottle and mixed with water from the well. This sugary concoction was then drunk as ‘Spanish water’; when I was growing up in the Cumbrian town of Whitehaven, liquorice was still known by the local kids as Spanish.

May 1st was the traditional day for the shaking bottle ceremonies to take place, though well waking could take place on other; saints’ days. On the first Sunday in May well waking was held at Skirsgill where there was also an annual fair, and at Greystock, at what was known as Tolly well or Tolly keld. There the children of the village used to walk in a kind of procession to the well, clutching their bottles of liquorice water. Once there they shook the bottles vigorously until the mixture frothed and then drank it down. A local clergyman writing about this some time after the festivities had died out (l850s) noted that this Sunday was always known as Bottle Shaking Sunday and in the afternoon it was impossible to get the children to Sunday School or to any of the children’s services. He also noted; ‘The oldest inhabitants always remember this custom, but fail to know any legends as to its origins.’

On the second Sunday in May, the ceremony took place at Clifton and on the third Sunday at the Isis Parlis caves at Penrith. There the people went to the north bank of the Eamont river to the caves, otherwise known as Sir Hugh’s Parlour – legend. says that a giant, Hugh Cesaric once lived there. The fourth Sunday of the month saw similar ceremonies at Dickly Bank Well.

St Nicholas’s Well in Carlisle was visited at some unspecified time in May for a shaking bottle ceremony; the last record I found of such a ceremony was in the l850s. Unfortunately this well has now been covered by the railway.

A tradition was recorded in 1884 from a former tenant of Gosforth Hall, West Cumbria, that at certain festivals (not specified) wine was poured in to a well and the people were encouraged to catch it as it came out of the spout – though it must have been well diluted by then. At the time this story was told, the location of the well was lost. Old maps showed the ruins of a chapel about a half mile away from the present church, with the site of the well marked by it, but the well’s position was added to the maps as a matter of tradition; there was no actual well on the site marked. It was only found again when the ruins of the chapel were excavated in 1901, for there was the well in the middle of the chapel, which was built symmetrically around the sacred spring. Today the ruins are virtually overgrown again, but the well is topped by a concrete slab with an inspection cover. The water remains beautifully clear and the original stone work inside the well is still visible. A well at Bothel was said to have run blood on the day of Charles I’s ‘martyrdom’; this may be a memory of a similar kind.of ceremony to the one at Gosforth.

At Dalston, religious rites, the nature of which I have been unable to establish, were carried out on Sundays at the well, when the villagers were said to invoke the good spirits of the well who were supposed to teach believers the virtues of temperance, health, simplicity and love.

St Catherine’s Well in the magnificent Eskdale Valley appears to have been the host, or should I say hostess, of an annual fair known as the Dogskin fair, held on the Saint’s day. Further details have proved elusive, but there may be some connection with the Catty Fair held at St Catherine’s Church on the same day. Then, yarn used to be hung on the churchyard wall. The well is less than quarter of a mile from the church, and it is unlikely the area supported two fairs on the same day.

St Catherine’s Well was excavated by the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological and Antiquities Society in 1925, when the old practice of using well water for baptisms was revived by the Rev. Hall. Unfortunately, less than then years after the excavation, it was overgrown again.

To round off this brief account of Lakeland well waking, it is interesting to note that wells and spas were often mentioned as markers in defining properties and lands. A well known as Michael Gray’s Well was one such, mentioned as a marker in defining the boundary between Penrith and Edenvale in 1765. The next point mentioned, although not a well, was called Liquorice Syke; was Michael Gray’s well at one time the resort of folks shaking their bottles in the immemorial ceremony found elsewhere?


Text  © Lesley Park (1986)

Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 05/02/01

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