Holy Wells in Yorkshire – 3
by Edna Whelan
St Helen’s Well, Eshton (SD 932 571)
This notable well is a listed monument described by Guy Ragland Phillips in his book Brigantia (RKP, 1976). It has a wide semi-circle of curved stone sill over which the water flows when the feeding spring is flooded, but under and around which the water normally seeps. Looking down on the sill there appears to be, at the junction of the kerbstones, three circular stones with hollowed-out cups in their centres full of water, almost resembling small fonts. However, if, as Mr Phillips says, you kneel on the sill and put your hand on the submerged parts of the stones you will find that they are carved into the shapes of stone heads, which are invisible under the water. Only in unusually long periods of drought, when the water level is considerably lowered, can these heads be seen. At either end of the stone sill stand, plainly visible, although moss-covered, two deeply carved stones of strange design. This well is the only one known in the area which has carved heads under the water. They are proof of a continuing tradition of the association of carved stone heads or skulls and sacred wells.
I visited this site myself on an April day in 1985 when the aconites were in bloom and I felt as though I was stepping into another world. As I was fixing the image of the well in my sight I heard the sound of a horse’s hooves along the lane beside the well and, as I turned to look, there was a lady riding by on a magnificent white horse. Did Elen, the Goddess of the Ways, ride a white horse or was it Rhiannon herself passing by? I felt that anything could happen here.
There is no legend, as such, attached to the well but there is a tradition of drinking the water with sugar added, on Sunday evenings in the late nineteenth century up to which time well-worship was practised there. A chapel-of-ease is mentioned standing near the well in a Commission dated 1429 relating to the Manor of Flasby in which the well is situated.
St Margaret’s Well, Burnsall (SE 032 617)
This well is located on the south bank of the River Wharfe in a field north of the church of St Wilfrid. An old custom prevailed in Burnsall before the Reformation, of visiting this well, when young people would gather there to perform certain ceremonies, one of them being to garland the well with leaves and flowers. Altars were also built on which flowers and gifts could be laid. It was common practice there, as in other ‘sugar wells’, of dropping sugar into the well in order to propitiate the presiding spirit. The patron saint of the well has been identified by Speight as St Margaret of Antioch. She is represented as rising out of a dragon with a cross in her hand, and sometimes with a dove sitting upon her shoulder – an ancient pre-Christian geomantic figure associated with the dragon-current, the spirit of transformation; on the human level the saint being swallowed by the dragon and so visiting the underworld.
Thrushkeld or Thor’s Well, Hebden (SE 029 629)
Near the boundary of the village of Hebden is sited this ancient well with its pagan dedication to Thor, or, even of more venerable origin, to the Fairies (Thrushkeld meaning Fairy Well). Wells retaining pagan dedications such as this are relatively rare. (There is also a Thor’s Hill in the locality). It is not long since this well ceased to be periodically decorated and in the late nineteenth century young people visited the well and drank the water with sugar added; maybe a form of love-potion.
However, local children were warned not to play in dangerous proximity to the well, for at the bottom dwelt a mysterious creature called Jenny Green Teeth or Peg-o-the-Well, who would drag into the water any child who approached too near to the edge.
Old Wife’s Well, Cropton Forest (SE 7944 9406)
The well is situated beside a narrow forest ride just within Cropton Forest. It is enclosed in a small stone structure about 3 feet square, which is lightly covered with turf to make a small mound. The stones of the structure are fairly large and the roof slab has, on the face above the opening to the well trough, the words ‘Mattie Fountain’ carved out of its surface. The Forestry Commission, who own the land, have surrounded the well with an appropriate rustic rail and the carved stone is clear of moss which shows some care is taken of the well. The water is enclosed in a deep stone trough and, maybe a trick of light or maybe something else, seemed to form a delicate white vapour above the water within the structure. The water seeps out at one corner to form a small stream. No legend about the well has, as yet, been discovered by me, but the name itself is very ancient, with its relevance to the Earth Mother, so surely a legend will be unearthed some day. This part of Yorkshire is full of ancient remains, standing stones, tumuli etc., and also tales of witches and surviving covens. About three hundred yards away and again just within the forest, beside a wide forest road, stands an ancient stone cross named Mauley Cross. This is very simple but it has an atmosphere of eternity.
Wine Wife Well, near Fountains Abbey (SE 2321 6742)
This well has an intriguing name very evocative of Wicca and the Mother Goddess, but it was a disappointment to us on our visit there on 26 April 1986 as there is no trace of stonework, let alone a well house. All that remains is just a boggy mess. There is a small pool of water settled within a mass of bracken, from which emanates a spring, with one or two birches scattered around, but behind the pool is the remains of a council tip!
The spring eventually feeds three large ponds further down a wooded valley, which were once fish ponds belonging to Fountains Abbey, but which are now full of the croaking noise of hundreds of frogs. Nevertheless in spite of our disappointment I tied a scrap of cotton to one of the birch trees beside the pool hoping that the guardian spirit would be encouraged to return.
Jeffery’s Well, near Pateley Bridge (SE 2307 6534)
In a field by a minor road, this is a beautiful little well with water running swiftly from a pipe into a trough and overflowing through a channel cut out of the corner of the trough and running away into the grass. A few yards behind the well and forming a natural background are a group of large rocks of millstone grit about three feet in height. Still further behind is a backdrop of much higher rocks set about with trees. There is no legend attached to this well and how it got its name is a mystery. (Any information about this name or its occurrence at any other well or site would be greatly appreciated). The water at the well dries up in summer and reappears in late autumn. The farmer who owns the land told us, when we visited the well on April 26th 1986, that the spring really rises from under the rocks just behind the well, but must run underground and only surfaces in winter and spring when there is more water about the place. Nearby, however, is a spring which never runs dry and which runs swiftly along a stone channel, through an area named White Dyke and feeds water to three farms before running into the River Nidd. This spring was known to the Monks of Fountains Abbey as it runs through land once owned by them and they were probably the people who lined the channel with stone.
Ian and Rosi Taylor and I visited the well after spending some hours at Brimham Rocks, a magical mystical place of huge rocks of Millstone Grit in strange formations covering a considerable area, which seem to suddenly appear from a landscape of pasture almost in the centre of Yorkshire. A real otherworld place of high energies and exciting atmosphere almost as old as time itself. A trailing cloud of this magic hung around us and mixed with the aura of the well. An unforgettable part of time in an ancient landscape.
Text & Illustrations © Edna Whelan (1986)
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