Holy Wells in Yorkshire – 4
by Edna Whelan
Diana’s Well, Witton Fell, Wensleydale (SE 1353 8521)
Also Known as Castaway Well, but the local name is ‘Slavering Sall’, and the reason for this is evident when one finally reaches the site on the higher slopes of closely-wooded Witton Fell. This tree-clad hill stands at the eastern end of beautiful Wensleydale and from the village of East Witton in the valley below it is a steady climb to the well. The ascent is up a country lane with a thick cover of conifers to one side, and thence eastwards along a forest ride for about a mile. The quietness and soft green light of the trees almost prepares one for the scene, as though on a pilgrim way. Round a slight bend in the track and incorporated into the hillside is a wall of huge stones and near the base of the wall is a grotesque carved stone face, the mouth of which has been used for a spout, from which crystal clear water flows into a shallow carved stone basin, and from thence into a small lined pool.
Beside the stone wall is a stone shelter with a large slab of rock in the centre serving as a table. This was built by the Earl of Aylesbury who lived at nearby Jervaulx and the date 1821 is inscribed over the arch of the shelter. The Earl had a carriage drive made from his house to the well where he and his family and guests would picnic. This is another well with a tradition of pins and other articles being thrown into the water, either to make a wish or to placate the resident goddess or spirit.
An old rhyme about East Witton says;
‘Whoever eats Hammer Nuts and drinks Diana’s water
Will never leave Witton Town while he’s a rag or tatter.‘
Hammer Woods nearby are famous for their hazel nuts.
The fact that this well retains a pagan name indicates that it escaped christianisation and that maybe the Romans substituted the name of their Goddess for a local Celtic deity. Who knows? There is certainly an atmosphere of ancientness and timelessness about the place. I cast a pin into the water before we left – this brought to mind the well’s other name, Castaway Well.
Robin Hood’s Well, Pen Hill, Wensleydale (SE 0567 8662)
Sited on the upper slopes of Pen Hill, one of the most prominent hills in Wensleydale, and a famous National Beacon, this natural spring emerges from the hillside running over a few small stones at first but then making its way beneath a slab of rock and plunging down the slopes between rough grass and bracken. Just above the well and overshadowing it is a healthy hawthorn tree, the only surviving one on this exposed shoulder of the hill.
There is an old legend of a giant who lived on the hill, and many traditions survive in this part of Wensleydale, but Robin Hood’s Well remains just that – Robin Hood’s Well. There are no healing powers attributed to it but the life-giving sparkle of its clear water is self-evident. The name gives rise to associations with the pagan Green Man figure. To stand by this well after a sharp scramble down the steep hillside is to experience an atmosphere of quiet serenity. The hawthorn tree gives an opportunity to leave a rag tied there. This well features on more than one ley.
Raykeld Well, Pen Hill, Wensleydale (SE 0679 8683)
Not too far from Robin Hood’s Well, and on the lower slopes, above Capplebank Stee, this well appears on the Ordnance Survey map but nothing else is yet known about it. ‘Keld’ is another name for a well. The well is surrounded by a fence, probably to keep out sheep and cattle, but inside the fence is a large square iron grate which is impossible to lift by hand. From below comes the sound of rushing water in some volume.
Kendle Acre Well, near Carperby, Wensleydale (SE 0019 9028)
Carperby is a small village on the Northern slopes of Wensleydale and behind it the moors lift up to the skyline and form a ridge between Wensleydale and Swaledale. On one of these slopes, slightly to the West of Carperby, is this well, a spring gushing from the hillside and pouring into a stone trough before finding its way between large boulders and thence over a rocky bed down the steep slopes below. It is marked on the O.S. map but seems to have no associated legends. It is within walking distance of an ancient place known as Carperby Stone Circle, though whether it is a stone circle or a cremation cemetery is debated. It is certainly an area roughly circular and surrounded by stones 3 to 4 feet high.
Sulphur Well, Redmire, Wensleydale (SE 0499 9050)
This well was famous in the early 1900s for its healing powers which were said to rival those of the famous Harrogate spas. The water was either drunk at the site or carried away in bottles. There was also a bath provided there, edged with large stones, and children and adults were dipped into the water as a cure for various ailments. On Sundays crowds gathered and sometimes there was a band playing. Ella Pontefract, in her book Wensleydale, says ‘there would be a procession of traps along the roads to Redmire and the maids from Bolton Hall would come dressed in their crinolines. In the morning the local people would go down to the well and bring home a bottle full of sulphur water to drink with their Sunday dinner. “Wasn’t it nasty?” we asked an old lady, thinking of the waters of Harrogate, “Nasty?”, she said, “We gloried in it.”‘
A local farmer told us how his mother used to go to the well in secret, as his grandmother forbade her to do so. She would tie string round the top of a glass jar and drop it into the water and so get a drink but, on arriving home, her mother could tell she had been drinking the forbidden well-water by the smell of sulphur on her breath. Why was she forbidden to go to the well? Maybe there was a lingering tradition of pagan well-worship?
From time to time there has been talk of trying to recover the spring but this would be a hard task as the well is difficult to find. The water emerges from a bank just above the river Ure, but is almost completely hidden by wild briars and flood debris washed up from the river. Only a glimmer of slowly moving water beneath the thorny branches and nettles and dead wood revealed to us the source of the spring. Some stones which could have been kerbstones were almost completely buried by an accumulation of earth and leaf mould. A place of sadness at the thought of lost glory, even though the water still flows there silently and secretly waiting to be re-adopted.
Nanny Well, West Witton, Wensleydale (SE 0574 8840)
The site and name of this well is on a large scale map of West Witton, and on visiting it we found water running from a spring in a field and under a stone wall into a stone trough beside the road from West Witton to Swinithwaite. We know of no legend or tradition attached to this well but the name may have Earth Goddess associations and there is much life in the water flow.
All the above wells lie in Wensleydale, one of the most beautiful places in the whole broad acres of Yorkshire. The people born here seldom leave it and having spent three weeks there this Summer one can understand why.
I would also like to report further on two wells which have appeared in previous issues and I have since visited;
St Simon’s Well, Coverham, Coverdale
See Source 3 (First Series). Visited 26th June 1986, and found to be in a very good state of preservation. The kerbstones of the bath were still in place and the water was running clear and strong, from under a yard or two of flagged path. The nearby St Simon’s Chapel was still recognisable and one of the walls reached a considerable height, but a mature ash tree along with other bushes was growing within the space between the remaining walls. A very pleasant place to visit and lying in a secluded spot on the banks of the river Cover it is still unspoiled and sacred.
St Alkelda’s Well, Middleham
This was not in such a good plight. It was reported in Source 4 (First Series), and must have been an important holy well at one time, indeed the name St Alkelda’s Well was written on an old weathered signboard nailed to a tree trunk above the wall behind the site. This was difficult to read, however, and not very prominent. All that remains of the well is a stone trough with no trace of water, just a tumble of masonry. The course of the stream which must have issued from the well was still discernible but this was also dry. An old rusty iron seat only added to the dejection.
Text & Illustrations © Edna Whelan (1986)
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