Dorset Holy Wells
by J. M. Harte
On the lower slopes of the hills north-east of the village is a spring called Lady Well on the Ordnance Survey, and so presumably dedicated to the Virgin. The well-head is completely overgrown with brambles, and may conceal some architectural fragments.
St Mary’s well lies part-way down a lane from the parish church of St Mary. All that remains on the site is a squat black pump that has no reputation and isn’t used. The name occurs in 17th century documents.
‘On the Walditch side of Bridport’ there was an east-running spring ‘from which people fetch water for their eyes’ (recorded in 1893).
In the 1820s a spring in a field by the roadside at Nottington got a reputation as a spa. The documentation on the site is fairly good, because the spring soon became one of the stopping-off points for visitors to Weymouth going on excursions. There is a chemical analysis of the waters, which apparently tells us more about the state of chemical knowledge at that time than it does about the spring; and two sketches of the site exist, forming a before-and-after pair. The earlier one depicts a crude stone wall suitable for a cattle trough, and the description attached tells how gentlefolk visiting the well would be startled to find that scabby cattle and mangy dogs had been brought in the hopes of sharing a cure. In the second, all this has been swept away and replaced by a neat octagonal building of two stories, more like a folly than anything else, with a weathervane in the form of an heraldic pelican. This survives (sans pelican) as a dwelling house.
Two or three fields on the Tithe Map have names incorporating the words Holy Well. As I remember, the well ought to lie at the corner of the adjacent fields.
Cerne Abbas (St Austin’s Well)
The site known as St Augustine’s Well was originally the Silver Well. Here St Edwold, a member of the Mercian royal family who left his native land to become a holy man, lived until his death in 671, in a small hermitage. ( Thus William of Malmesbury ). Cerne Abbey was founded in the 970s, although they may have chosen the site because of its association with the saint of an earlier century. Edwold was told in a vision to travel to Silver Well; when he came to Cerne, he gave silver pennies to a shepherd in return for bread and water, and the man showed him the well, which he recognised as fulfilling the vision.
Later, in the 11th century, the monks of Cerne felt a desire for a more exalted origin, and hired an itinerant hagiographer called Gotselin to provide it. He composed a new legend ascribing the well to St Augustine. The saint was travelling in Dorset when he encountered some shepherds; he asked them what they would prefer to drink, beer or water, and when the temperate shepherds asked for water, he struck the ground with his staff and created the spring. Or, while in a vision he struck the ground to make the spring run out, crying ‘Cerno El’ , which is Latin and Hebrew for ‘I see God’ and forms a pun on the village’s old name of Cernel. The legend goes on to describe an adventure of Augustine with the folk of an outlying village who tied fishtails onto his robes; this is taken from a Canterbury story.
The well has had a triple reputation, as being an oracular, a healing, and a wishing well. ‘If anyone looks into St Austin’s Well the first thing on Easter morning he will see the faces of those who will die within the year’ (1897). This story is now told, at Cerne as at elsewhere, of waiting in the parish church. The well ‘works wondrous cures. I have had a case told in all detail while sketching the lovely spring’ (1888). It was prescribed for sore eyes and general ill health (1897). It was thought wholesome to plunge new-born babies into the chill water, ‘the infant being dipped just at the time when the sun first begins to shine on the water’ (1893). But the sun would have to penetrate the leaves of several well-grown trees.
A newspaper columnist in 1850 alludes coyly to the local belief that women drinking at the well would become pregnant. Presumably the use of the spring as a wishing-well to gain husbands is part of the same belief. Girls were to drink from the water, put their hand on part of the fabric known as the wishing stone, and pray to St Catherine for a husband. In another version, the spring is a wishing-well pure and simple; you are to make a cup from laurel leaves, fill it with the water and face south to the church, then drink it while you wish (both traditions 1957). These beliefs are tangled up with the custom of praying to St Catherine for a husband, which was practised at the site of her lost chapel south of the village on a hill, and with the practice of invoking the Cerne Giant to cure sterility: Giant Hill lies just over a field from the well.
This site is the only holy well in Dorset to have had a shrine; Leland records that there was a chapel to St Augustine built over the spring. This seems to have been demolished and replaced by some simple but beautiful stone channels which surround the spring’s breaking-point and lead it to the south. A few stones beside the well – one of them presumably the wishing stone – have come from the ruins of Cerne Abbey; one of them bears a Tudor Rose, and so must date from the last great phase of re-building. The well lies in a hollow, four or five feet below the level of the surrounding field (the parish graveyard). It is surrounded by lime trees, known in the village as the Twelve Apostles.
Cerne Abbas (Pill Well)
This lies on the outskirts of the village and was reported in 1897 to share in the curative powers of St Austin’s Well.
Three sites in this parish are connected with the history or legend of St Edward, King and martyr; they are known as St Edward’s Bridge, Cottage and Fountain, and have been so called since the time of Hutchins the county historian (1774). The well is mentioned in a reference of 1429 to ‘a stream of water at Seint Edwardiswateryng’. The king was out hunting near Corfe in 978 when he was betrayed and murdered by servants at the instigation of his step-mother Elfthryth, who wished that her son Ethelred would become king. After the crime, Edward’s body was taken to the cottage of an old blind woman nearby. At midnight the cottage was filled with a mysterious light, and the woman’s sight was restored. Elfthryth ordered the body to be thrown into a well, but a year later a pillar of fire descended from heaven upon the well, and the body was taken out and found to be uncorrupted; the water of the well afterwards cured diseases. The saint’s body was taken to Wareham, and thence to Shaftesbury. (Thus the hagiographers. The miracle stories are amongst the later additions to the legend). In modern times the water of the spring was prescribed for eye trouble and the ague (1978).
A hamlet of this parish is called Holwell, and in the 1950s a stone monument was placed by a spring here with an inscription identifying it as the eponymous holy well of Holwell. The EPNS for Dorset, however, derive the first element from holh, ‘hollow’ but only give one form. In the 1890s a local antiquary traced the remains of a villa near the well.
Holy Well, Holy Stream running from it, and Holly Wood through which the stream runs, all appear on the Ordnance Survey.
A crossroads here, at the junction of three parishes, is called Holywell after a well dedicated to St John. None of the three adjoining parish churches is dedicated to that saint.
A writer describing the Roman villa here in 1903 states, ‘The meadow immediately north-west of the villa is called Holywell Meadow, and still contains on its brow a strong clear stream of warm water. I have found that the flow is received into a stone basin of unknown age, with grooving for a sluice and hatch for regulating the supply’.
The site of the former Crown Inn is now occupied by a potter’s workshop within which ‘is a deep well containing, if you have the requisite ailment, healing waters which you may freely imbibe’ (1978).
The Tithe Map of 1838 shows a Holly Well. The name appears as Hallwell Mead in 1607.
So named from a succession of hermits established on this land, a detached member of the royal manor of Fordington, since the 14th century. A spring called Lady’s Well lies near the church, which is dedicated to the Virgin, and a place nearby is called Remedy on the 1811 O.S.
A parish which until the present century lay in Somerset, though entirely surrounded by Dorset, an oddity probably due to monastic ownership. The name is firmly derived from holh by Fagersten in his Dorset Placenames, but I have met with other forms where the element is clearly halig (holy). At any rate, a well with steps leading down to it is shown by the villagers as the eponymous holy well.
A spring formerly called Stachy’s Well is now a damp patch of nettles. Hutchins derives the name from St Eustachius’ Well, the church being dedicated to that saint. It is possible that the church dedication is a back-formation based on antiquarian speculation about the well name.
There is a St Andrew’s Well, lying beside St Andrew’s chapel in the town, and described as ‘one of the earliest and best sources of Lyme’s water supply’: it is named in the mediaeval records of the borough.
A charter of 1024 includes ‘the holy well’ amongst its bounds. These run along a stream in the valley bottom for this part of their course. and the site of the well can only be approximately made out.
The district here named Fortuneswell was first so called in 1608. The name presumably commemorates a wishing-well of some sort.
There is an old well behind the hall of the Manor House, standing by a newel staircase, and ‘a fairy, or Undine, lived at the bottom’ . The staircase was destroyed in the 19th century because the family grew tired of seeing the apparition on the stairs. The well was supposed to contain treasure. When it was cleared out, some medicine bottles were found in it, presumably having been used in conjunction with healing water (1928).
The hamlet of Holwell in this parish appears as a manor called Halegewelle in Domesday. At a later date, this parish, like Nottington in Broadway, had a spa; but I am not sure where it stood.
At the northern edge of the town, beside a pub called the Traveller’s Rest, is St Winifred’s Well. The name may be modern as it has not been tracked down in any mediaeval documents.
‘Water from a spring which rises facing due east is said to be a cure for sore eyes, especially if the water be taken at the moment the sun’s rays first light upon it. A spring rising in a field at symondsbury Farm has this reputation’ (1892). ‘In 1913 the water from this spring had been diverted to a trough, or tank, lower down in the field, and no longer flows out facing the east’.
The hamlet of Elwell in this parish is Helewill in 1212, and is derived by the EPS from haele, ‘safe’, haelu, ‘health’, or hael, ‘omen’ – so that it was either an oracular or a healing well. In recent times it was known as the Healing Well, ‘a spring in a field at the bottom of Ridgeway, behind where the Royal Oak inn used to stand…Healing properties, especially in connection with eyes, were attributed to this spring.’
The Upwey Wishing Well is the source of the river Wey, and the most powerful spring in the south of England. Its reputation as a wishing-well is reckoned locally to have begun with its use as such in a novel early this century, and the prescribed ritual – to take a cup or laurel-leaf full of the water, drink, and throw it backwards over your shoulder while wishing – may have been borrowed from Cerne and elsewhere. In any case, the tea-rooms at the well are a fascinating gallery of folkloristic kitsch – plastic gnomes and lucky horseshoes etc.
A spring beside All Hallows Chapel is referred to as Alhalon Well in 1545 and Allhollan Well in 1582.
St Wite, to whom the church is dedicated, has been the source of frequent controversy; some have dismissed her as a back-formation from a name white-church, others have claimed her as a Celtic saint Gwen, and a third party hold that she was a 9th century English hermitess. Her relics were found during the restoration of the church, within a 14th century casket. The most recent authorities have favoured the theory of a local English saint.
St Wite’s Well has been In existence since 1630, when a traveller refers to ‘St White a Virgin Martyr, whose Well the Inhabitants will shewe you not farre off in the Side of an Hill, where she lived in Prayer and Contemplation’. This well is marked on the Ordnance Survey and there have been recent attempts by some rich eccentric to build a shrine over it.
Some Possible Patron Wells
There are some instances of wells lying in or by a churchyard, which doubtless served the liturgical needs of the church and may have borne a dedication to the patron saint. These are at Lyme Regis, where a well by the former chapel of St Mary and the Holy Spirit (now a public Garden) is known as the Lepers’ Well: at Mappowder where an unfailing sprint rising behind the church is known as Morning Well; at Plush, a chapelry in Piddletrenthide, where a spring takes its rise just below the chapel; and at Stalbridge, where Leland wrote that there was a spring walled about on the south side of the church.
Some Wells with Associated Folklore
There is a well here, with an ash tree growing above it, called Washers Pit. Two stories are connected with it, one telling of a White Lady who haunts the well and the nearby road, and the other recounting how the cook from the big house had a prophetic dream and rode out to this spot, coming in time to save a lady dressed in white who was hanging from the ash tree.
A well here is supposed to be covered with oil at certain times, and there are traditions of Roman occupation in the area.
A White Lady haunts a cottage with a well in the garden here.
There is a well here whose water runs red at certain times, because an unfaithful wife was once thrown in and drowned in its waters by her jealous husband; it is either her blood that stains the water, or the red dye of her petticoat. At another well here, a man drawing water had a fleeting thought of making the pact with the Devil. The Devil appeared, to ask the man if he meant to do it or not; he answered that he must finish drawing water first, but the Devil pushed a burning candle into the water of the well, and as soon as it was extinguished, made off with the man’s soul.
Because this town stands on a hill, it always had in the past to get its water supply carried up in carts. (There was more beer than water in Shaftesbury then). The water came from some springs at a place called Enmore Green in the neighbouring parish of Motcombe. From the 17th century onwards, there was a yearly ceremony by which the Mayor and Corporation of the town went down to the village, feasted and danced, and handed over a peculiar object called the Shaftesbury Bezant, all in recognition of Motcombe’s right to the water supply. No proper history of the custom has yet been written, and the wells only appear in it as a prosaic water supply.
A field called Bannell Meadow is named from a spring called Baunwell in 1460, ‘the slayer’s spring’. The same etymology applies to Banwell in Somerset and some other places, but no satisfactory explanation of it has been founded. It may possibly allude to a dragon legend, since wells have featured in these from the 14th century onwards, but this is only a guess.
There is a spring called Bridewell recorded on the 1811 O.S. Assuming that this is not a transferred name from the London prison, it may refer to some sort of fertility or marriage superstition here, as at Cerne; but this is only more guesswork.
(It is also worth noting that there is a St Catherine’s Well down one of the streets of the l8th century model village at Milton Abbas.)
Text © J. M. Harte (1985)
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