Holy Wells in Yorkshire – 5
by Edna Whelan
Lady Well, Goodmanham (SE 8873 4294)
Goodmanham in East Yorkshire is as important in its way as Lastingham which is well known for its ancient church crypt with the famous dragon carvings and the site of the ancient Celtic monastery of St Cedd and St Chad. There are three holy wells at Lastingham, and there are three also, and an ancient named spring, at Goodmanham. The history of Goodmanham has been recorded in Bede’s ‘History of the English Church and People‘. The Church of All Hallows, however, stands upon a site held sacred since the days of the worship of the Old Gods and Goddesses, and the area has been a place of settlement since the very earliest times, long before Christianity appeared. Goodmanham was the Pagan High Shrine of Northumbria in AD 625 when Edwin became King of this vast tract of land which stretched from the north bank of the Humber to the Firth of Forth. The story of Edwin’s conversion to Christianity and the dramatic desecration of the Pagan Shrine by Coifi, the High Priest, makes an exciting and unforgettable legend.
The Lady Well lies in a hollow in an area of rough pastureland which slopes gently downhill. The spring water issues from beneath the roots of the largest of three hawthorn trees and flows away between a winding ribbon of lush green verdure; almost an emerald green as against the yellow green of the rougher grasses. It is said that at one time all the village drew its supply of water from Lady Well and that from here water was used to fill the two fonts which stand within the nearby church; holy water indeed.
The well has no known healing properties or traditions, but it is well preserved in its natural beauty. It has no stonework visible around it, only the strength and support of the hawthorns.
To the south of Goodmanham village there is a lovely wooded valley with a well-trodden path running through it and here, set in the southern slopes of the hillside. amongst the trees, is St Helen’s Well, another of the many so-named wells. This one has a particular charm. It has been lovingly restored and cared for by the Girl Guides of nearby Market Weighton and it is to their credit that one can comfortably stand and pause and quietly absorb the aura of the sacred site.
The water steams from a natural grotto in the hillside beneath the overhanging branches of an elder and pours into a wide, shallow, stone-edged bath where, on a clear day, the water reflects as in a mirror the blue of the sky. Once again, no specific traditions survive, but the presence of the bath structure suggest this was a place where the healing and purifying qualities of the water could be absorbed by submersion. A sense of the well’s healing properties can be gained by merely standing by it, and the invitation to step into the water is irresistible. Across the valley on its north side is an area of grassland that is full of mounds and ridges and this is known locally as Howe Hills.
Beggars Bush Well, Goodmanham (SE 8875 4350)
There is an old and venerable bush in the bank above this well but why it was called Beggars Bush no-one seems to know. It is clearly marked on the map as such and when my friends Ian & Rosi Taylor and myself went looking for the well on a bright cold day, 31st January (the eve of Imbolc) we found that it was a wayside well, being beside an old green track which follows the path of the ‘Wolds Way’. Once again, the water issues from a slope in the land and runs over a sandy bed into a nearby stream. There are no signs of stones or of steps down to the water though these may once have existed. The fact that the well is named and recorded on the O.S. map indicates some past importance.
This ancient spring lies to the north of the village, the water coming from two clear sources and joining together to form a small pond in a hollow in green pastureland. Hawthorn trees are prominent in forming a hedge to one side of the pond and a small tree stands beside one of the springs, which appears merely a yard away from the edge of the pool. Here again, the spring is only noted because it is named and any properties or traditions it was once known to have are now lost to us, though a magical quality lingers here if we have time to stand quietly and sense the feeling of the place, which is well worth a visit. An old disused railway embankment runs nearby and is much used by local people as a pleasant walk.
Lady Well, Seaton Ross (SE 7844 4026)
Following a public footpath from the village of Seaton Ross, around and even across ploughed fields set with crops, but still following footpath markers across the narrow and seemingly fragile bridges over field drains, any determined walker will at last come to the site of Lady Well, a wild other-worldly corner where the water rises from an unseen source and forms a pool almost surrounded by trees and tall wild grasses. To visit this sacred place in Winter when the water is completely frozen over is an unforgettable experience. As we stood beside the frozen pond a hare suddenly skittered across the ice from one bank to the other and raced across the next field. Only the name, Lady Well, remains to show its sacredness.
Lady Well, Nunburnholme (SE 8492 4877)
The village of Nunburnholme once had a small Benedictine nunnery within its bounds, founded in the 13th century and dedicated to St Mary. All that remains of it now are various grassy mounds, but the history of the village and nunnery, including the names of Prioresses from 1205, was written by Revd. W. Morris in 1906 and his book has a map of the parish showing the position of Lady Well. This was also a village well and is situated near Bratt Wood which covers a steep bank to the north of the village. A beautifully clear stream issues from a semicircular dip in the hillside amid tall old beech trees, and runs swiftly over a large block of stone and thence through two pieces of wide piping, from which it falls 2 or 3 feet in a small waterfall. It then continues down the hillside and into the valley below. The name Lady Well is of course synonymous with the Virgin, hence the link with the nunnery of St Mary, but the well is known to be of great age and was probably in existence before the nunnery.
Lady Spring, Warter, near Nunburnholme (SE 8691 4983)
In lovely shady woodland where ancient earthworks are evident amongst the trees and undergrowth there runs a strong stream, or beck, as we call them in Yorkshire, and into this beck there runs a clear flow of water from a spring in the steep wooded bank. This is no mere trickle but a gushing, sparkling outpouring from the earth. There may have been a structure here once, possible traces of which remain, but the name Lady Spring once more preserves knowledge of the spring’s past importance. There was an Augustinian priory at Warter from 1132 but nothing is left of it. This spring features as the terminal point on a lay outlined in Ian Taylor’s ‘The All Saints Ley Hunt‘ and he puts forward an intriguing connection with the Nunburnholme priory; ‘It is not unknown for nuns to have adopted the role of guardians of the Sacred Waters, a position they may have taken over from earlier Pagan Goddess cults and local traditional witch covens. This may also be an example of an exclusively Mediaeval processional ley, the nuns being the devotees and unofficial priestesses.’
Revd. William Smith, in his ‘Ancient Springs and Streams of the East Riding of Yorkshire‘ (1923), chapter 16, says;
‘In England, of the Holy Wells dedicated to the Saints of Christianity, the wells of Our Lady greatly exceed in number those of any other saint. Water throughout the ages has ever been regarded as the symbol of purity. Its presence is seen too in the tenets of Pagan mythology. The Norsemen had a Goddess eminent as the embodiment of purity and known to them as the Queen of Heaven. She was Freya and her name lives and is constantly on our lips in Freya’s Day, or Friday. Freya the pure was associated in the minds of our forefathers with clear water as the special spirit of the springs and streams, and as such was worshipped by them. Some shadowy remains of her may be met with still in the White Lady so often supposed to haunt the neighbourhood of springs. Freya was certainly represented by the Lady-Bird one of the most pretty of our insects and this, long before ‘Our Lady the Virgin, Mother of Christ’ was known.
Our children place the pretty black-spotted red insect on the tip of the index finger of the left hand, and chant this charm;
Lady Bird, Lady Bird, fly away home,
Your house is on fire, Your children all gone.
Further, if the charm is not seemingly shown to work by the Lady Bird, of its own accord, spreading its wings and speeding skyward, our children make it do so by blowing it. In this they are without knowing it, using an incantation to Freya and insisting that it should work, an enchantment which in a more recent age was associated with the Virgin Mary.’
Text & Illustrations © Edna Whelan (1987)
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