Holy Wells in Yorkshire – 2

by Edna Whelan

St Cedd’s Well, Lastingham      (SE 729 904)

On the end of the bridge which spans the beck near the centre of the village stands St Cedd’s Well. It has a canopy of stonework brought from Rosedale Abbey, and is inscribed with a reference to Cedd’s foundation of a monastery at Lastingham in AD 648, and to his death in 664. This is probably another example of an earlier well being reconsecrated to a Christian saint, with the coming of the monks in the 7th century.

St Cedd, Bishop of the East Saxons, was granted land to found a monastery by King Ethelwold and he administered the monastery until his death, when it passed to his brother Chad. This is a well-preserved Holy Well still providing a source of drinking water. Lastingham has two other wells;


St Chad’s Well, Lastingham      (SE 729 905)

Situated on the east side of the High Street, consisting of a stone trough inside a graceful well-house flanked by a high stone wall. St Chad was one of three brothers. Cedd and Cynebel were involved in the building of the first monastery, and Chad later became Bishop of Lichfield, of York, and of Lindisfarne. The only legend attached to this well is that of Wulfhere, King of Mercia who, filled with remorse after putting his two sons to death for worshipping at Chad’s cell, adopted the faith of his murdered children at the instance of his Queen, Ermenilda.

The well is dry and according to a lady of the locality the water was piped away quite recently because it was being used for washing cars. A sad desecration of a sacred site, and typical of the car-worship of modern times. Lastingham’s third well is;


St Ovin’s Well, Lastingham      (SE 729 904)

Across the road from the Post Office, and consisting of an arched well-house set into a stone wall. This well is also dry but there is a large oblong stone set into the back of the well-house which could be one side of a trough. The only surviving legend is the story of St Ovin as told by Bede; that he gave up high position in the household of Queen Ethelrid and went to Lastingham carrying an axe and a hatchet to denote that he joined the monastery to work not idle. He later went to Lichfield with Chad and was allowed to hear sounds of angelic melody, interpreted as a heavenly call to Chad, who died 7 days later. Although these legends are attributed to saints, one wonders if there lies within them a symbolism of earlier attributes of prophecy, fertility and healing at the well.


St Alkelda’s Well, Middleham      (SE 113 904)

This well is close by Middleham House and not far from the famous Middleham Castle. The parish church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St Alkelda, of whom little is known. She is also the patron of Giggleswick church (see below) and one legend has her as a Saxon lady living in Yorkshire who suffered martyrdom at the hands of Danish women, being strangled for her faith. Her name is first mentioned with Middleham church in the late 13th century, and with Giggleswick in the will of one James Carr, 1528, who expressed a wish to be buried ‘in the church of the Holie and Blessed Virgin Saint Alkeld’. Some scholars suggest the name is simply derived from the Old English ‘haeligkeld’ meaning Holy Well. There is, once more, the link between sacred wells of ancient origin and the invasion of the Christian religion. No healing attributes have been given to this well within living knowledge but a fair is held in Middleham on the 5th November, a date connected with Alkelda, and close enough to the pagan Samhain to be possibly significant.

See also Source Six (First Series).


Hart Leap Well, Hauxwell Moor, Barden Fell      (SE 135 965)

This well remains in tradition and in the poetry of Wordsworth but is now choked up. The tradition is that a hart, an animal of unusual strength and beauty, led a chase of long duration and great speed across this moorland. Horses and hounds dropped out one by one until a single horseman remained. Worn out at last, the exhausted hart gave three tremendous leaps down the declivity and dropped dead beside this well. Hope states that ‘three pillars, each a rough stone, marked the site of the three astonishing leaps’ (were these mark stones for an alignment?). The stones remained conspicuous until very lately but are now either removed or concealed by a recent wall. An old withered tree overhangs the spring, which may be found by the bright green of its grass, which contrasts with the darker heather all around.


Holy Well, Hunsingore      (approx. SE 428 536)

A remarkable occurrence relating to Hunsingore is recorded in the Sessions Rolls of the West Riding of Yorkshire 1597-8 (at Wetherby) – ‘Forasmuch as it is manifestlie proven to this Court that Ffrancis Thompson and George Allen of Hunsingore did, in a most contemptous manner, bring into Hunsingore Church a Toie called the Flower of the Well in the tyme of divine service, wherebie the Vicar was disturbed in saieing the said service. It is therefore ordered that the said Ffrancis and George shall be presently stripped naked from the middle upwards and whipped throwe this town of Wetherby for their said offence’.

‘The (Toie) toy here referred to,’ says a Mr J.S. Fletcher in 1900, ‘was in all probability an image which had been used at one of the old well-deckings, in celebrating which it was usual to construct an effigy of the saint or nymph to whom the well was dedicated and to trick it out with gew-gaws and flowers and carry it in procession’.

The old church at Hunsingore in which this curious instance of sacrilege took place was pulled down and the present modern edifice built close by. The above account provides evidence that a Holy Well existed in Hunsingore at one time, and research into relocating it will certainly continue.


St Mary Magdalene’s Well, Spaunton Bank, near Lastingham      (SE 722 904)

This is a spring of sweet clear water issuing from a bank into a stone trough and is thickly covered with water-cress. Above the spring and set into the bank is a slab of local stone with the well’s dedication inscribed on it. The well was re-dug in 1964 by a Mr H. Frank and the stone trough was then exposed. Grateful thanks are due to Mr Frank for his work. In his digging he found a sherd of Roman or Saxon ware and pottery of the 13th century. The well has clearly been used for drinking water, or for its healing qualities, or other worship.



Our Lady’s Well, Threshfield      (SD 998 638)

This is one of several wells situated beside the River Wharfe on its long journey from Beckermonds in Langstrothdale to its meeting with the Ouse, North of Cawood. Threshfield is near Linton-in-Craven, on the upper stretches of the Wharfe and the Well of Our Lady emerges as a clear spring of water near to Grassington Bridge. The well was looked on as a sure and certain place of safety and refuge from all supernatural visitants, as shown by a certain legend; Pam the Fiddler was a teacher at Threshfield school many years ago and as he played his fiddle to entertain his pupils a ghost would appear and stand listening to the music. After Pam’s death a local man returning home late one night saw Pam on the roof of the school fighting with the local vicar and accompanied by imps. The witness sneezed, and the imps and Pam’s ghost chased him; he took refuge in the shelter of the well where he stayed till cock-crow, safe from attack. This story was told to me by Robert Greenwood, a farmer’s son who was born and still lives in the area, and attended the school in the 1970s.

The well formerly attracted pilgrims from far and near, its waters being famed for their healing properties for many ailments. Now it is still in good condition and attracts visitors out of curiosity. In the early 1900s it was used by the youth of the district who ‘being held by Cupid’s Chain seemed to gain fresh inspirations from copious draughts of the cooling waters’ [Arthur Millar, Yorkshire Notes & Queries]. Could ‘Pam’ derive from Pan?


Ebbing and Flowing Well, Giggleswick      (SD 803 654)

   Situated at the foot of Giggleswick Scar beside the road which runs from Settle to Clapham, and 1 mile west of Giggleswick. The water of this celebrated well periodically ebbs and flows, at times brimming over to run across the road, other times being at least 8 feet below the edge of the stone trough into which it runs. There are two legends attached to the well and a stained- glass window in the nearby church of St Alkelda, Giggleswick depicts possible ‘sacrifices’ at the well.

One legend was written into Polyolbion by Michael Drayton;

At Giggleswick, where I a fountain can you show

That eight times a day is said to ebb and flow

Who sometime was a nymph, and in the mountains high

Of Craven, whose blue heads for caps put on the sky,

Amongst the Oreads there, and Sylvans made abode

(It was ere human foot upon these hills had trod)

Of all the mountain kind, and, since she was most fair

It was a Satyr’s chance to see her silver hair

Flow loosely at her back, as up a cliffe she clame,

Her beauties noting well, her features, and her frame.

And after her he goes; which when she did espy

Before him like the wind the nimble nymph doth fly;

They hurry down the rocks, o’er hill and dale they drive;

To take her he doth strain, t’outstrip him she doth strive,

As one his kind that knew, and greatly feared his rape,

And to the topick gods by praying to escape,

They turned her to a spring, which as she then did pant,

When wearied with her cause her breath grew wonderous scant

Even as the fearful nymph, then thick and short did blow,

Now made by them a spring, so doth she ebb and flow.

This is of course reproduced in Hope’s book but it is so evocative that it needs to be quoted in full.

The second legend is that the spirit of this well gave to Ben Nevison, the highwayman, a magic bridle which, when he was chased, allowed him to perform extraordinary feats to evade capture, one of which was to leap on horseback across the awe-inspiring chasm of Hell Gill. Until recently the tradition of mixing the well water with liquorice and shaking them together in a bottle to be drunk on Easter Sunday was still carried on by children and young people. A stone head in the fabric of Giggleswick church is depicted as emerging from waves. Whether this connects with the ancient tradition of placing stone heads (and skulls) in wells is uncertain. A sad footnote is that, since certain people dug out the well some years ago, in order to find out the reason for its ebb and flow, the rhythm of this phenomenon has almost ceased, even though the fabric of the well was supposedly replaced exactly as it was before.


St Leonard’s Well, High Belthorpe, Pocklington      (SE 780 535)

Situated about ½ mile from High Belthorpe Farm which is built on the moated site of an ancient farmstead. Here there were some years ago plainly visible two springs both flowing from grit stone and having each formed a basin in the stone. The larger was irregularly elliptical and about 30 inches wide, 18 inches broad and 24 inches deep, the smaller almost circular, with both its diameter and depth being 18 inches. The springs have now formed a pond with willows growing near. The waters were formerly noted for their healing powers, and are still thought to be beneficial. Many used the waters in the late 1800s, taking it away in bottles, and one Belthorpe farmer used to rise at five o’clock in the morning to drink of the water and left a cup nearby for anyone’s use. St Leonard was a hermit and monk of France in the 6th century and the patron saint of prisoners. This well is the terminal point of a ley from Pocklington Church, and a point on other alignments in the area.


Robin Hood’s Well, Fountains Abbey

This well in the grounds of Fountains Abbey is supposed to be the well near which Robin Hood and Friar Tuck had a trial of strength in which the Friar cudgelled Robin into the water. Could this be a symbolic story?


Robin-Round-Cap Well, Spaldington      (SE 761 336)

Spaldington is a hamlet 4 miles from Howden. Until 1838 there was a fine Elizabethan mansion here, where Robin-Round-Cap is said to have made his home. He is a fairy figure, also known as Robin Goodfellow, who is connected with wells in the East Riding of Yorkshire. At times Robin was good-natured and helped the people of the mansion, assisting in the threshing and butter-making; but at other times he became exceedingly mischievous, knocking over the milk pails, putting out the fire, and re-mixing the winnowed wheat with the chaff. Three clergymen were called to charm him or pray him into the well, which has since borne his name; he was compelled to remain there for a given number of years, and to agree to molest the family no longer.



In visiting as many of these wells as possible, in order to note their condition and take photographs, one cannot help but come under their spell, particularly those which are situated a distance away from the noise and traffic of roads and villages. It seems important to keep up the traditions of the Wells and so I invariably find it imperative to leave a rag, torn from a handkerchief, tied to a convenient tree near the water, if possible. The need to curtsey or bow on leaving the well is also very strong; even if only mentally, the recognition seems necessary.

Text & Illustrations © Edna Whelan (1986)

Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 04/01/00

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