Holy Wells in Yorkshire – 7
by Edna Whelan
Toon Well, Langtoft (TA 010 669)
Hen-Pit-Hole, Kilham TA 022 658)
If you visit the village of Langtoft on the road from Driffield to Scarborough you will find on a stone slab set into the wall of a house, an inscription which tells of a great flood in 1892 when water rose to a height of 7½ feet above street level. Previous floods also occurred in 1888 and 1657, but in the flood of 1892 the Toon Well was filled with debris. This does not seem too dramatic until you discover that this well has a depth of 126 feet.
The well is now concealed under a large metal plate but in 1923 was covered with a pump. Nothing too unusual about a village well, but its connection with the quaintly named Hen-Pit-Hole at nearby Kilham makes it worthy of note. Kilham is three miles from Langtoft and Hen-Pit-Hole is about midway between the two. In a wet season, in the days before the water level had dropped because of deep draining, the water in Toon Well would rise to the top, and then, from Hen-Pit-Hole 1½ miles away, a stream of water would shoot high into the air and curve over into an arch under which a rider on horseback could pass without getting wet – an amazing spectacle. The name Hen-Pit-Hole is said to derive from the fact that a gypsy once put a hen in Langtoft Well which came out at the Hole but this is an old tradition. Rev. Wm. Smith states that Hen-Pit-Hole gets its name because it is said to be haunted by a hen and chickens and he connects this bird mother and her children with a Celtic water-goddess and her attendant nymphs.
On visiting these two sites in October 1987 there was of course no curving arch of water from Hen-Pit-Hole and although we found the site, in a small dell set back from the roadside, full of trees, bushes and briars, the tangle of growth was too dense for us to penetrate in order to find any water. Such a mass of growth, however, indicated some rich source of sustenance. On the opposite side of the road, just by a hedge, in full bloom were great clumps of the most beautiful soapwort I have seen. What a shame the curving arch of water no longer appears from this well and I wonder who, of late, sees the ghostly hen and her chickens?
Nun’s Well, Arthington (SE 2915 4514)
This well is enclosed in a round stone curb and is in very good condition which surely suggests it is looked after by whoever farms the pastureland on which it is sited. Looking for the well last October, with Ian Taylor and Mark Valentine, we first came to a stone-lined soakaway, very picturesque, some 100 yards or so from the roadside near Arthington but, on looking around a bit more, we discovered the actual well about 15 yards away. The water in the well was beautifully clear and cold. There is no known tradition about this well but it is in reasonably close proximity to the very old house named The Nunnery and on which site in c. 1150 one Peter de Arthington founded a Cluniac Nunnery reported in old documents.
From the site of the well there is a good view of Almscliffe Crags in the distance, these Crags being mentioned as ‘once a place of pagan worship, high and lifted up’ – see my report on St Helen’s Well, Kirby Overblow, in Source 8 (First Series).
St Helen’s Well, North Cave (SE 8946 3268)
This enchanting well is in the topmost corner of a large private garden but public access is assured by a footpath leading from one of the roads which run through the village of North Cave. The footpath is easy to find as it runs alongside Quaker Cottage, a charming old house on the roadside, its front façade completely covered by a thick green creeper. The footpath leads to a gate which opens on to a short track to the well. Rows of brick and stonework form a semi-circular head where the water is fairly deep and clear but two steps lead out, nowadays just submerged by the water. It is reported by Rev. Wm. Smith that in 1923 the well was roofed by corrugated iron and was also known as the Quaker Well from the fact that Quaker Meeting House once stood on the site of Quaker Cottage.
The roof is now gone (I do not like the sound of a corrugated iron roof anyway) and nettles and briars surround the spot. The water from the well runs under the track and into a quite strongly flowing beck into which stream, once upon a time, housewives when cleaning for the feast used to sweep spiders (being fearful of killing them lest ill-luck should follow). The well was in constant use up to 1937 when piped water was brought to North Cave.
A report on the well in the local newspaper for 1894 states that;
‘Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter finds it always running, giving forth an inexhaustible supply. It is never dry in the driest of Summers and never frozen over in the hardest of Winters. It is the friend of all, the enemy of none and so it will be found to the end of the chapter.’
A designation that could apply to all Holy Wells.
Each well I visit has a different aura around it but this one is one of my favourites. When visiting it everyone seems to stand quietly for a while paying due reverence, indeed one could linger here all day, or maybe for ‘a year and a day’!
Revd. Wm. Smith, (1923); Ancient Springs and Streams of the East Riding of Yorkshire. A. Brown Ltd., Hull.
Text & Illustrations © Edna Whelan (1989)
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