Holy Wells Today
compiled by Mark Valentine
Other Well Ceremonies
The well-dressing which has survived in Derbyshire was originally much more widespread. I would be interested to hear of any other customs, not necessarily ‘dressing’ , which are still followed today, involving wells or springs.
Two Staffordshire villages have in recent times held ‘dressing’ events; Endon, which is usually around Spring Bank Holiday weekend, and Newborough, which member Chris Fletcher informs me is in danger of finishing, since parish finances can’t cope!
The local horticultural society has in the past staged a dressing ceremony at the Holywell, Cambridgeshire, holy well, on Midsummer’s Day. Bernard Schofield in is Events in Britain (Blandford Press, 1981) records a continuing Well Blessing custom at Bisley, Gloucestershire on May 24th.
When a well dating from at least the 14th century was uncovered under the Devon and Exeter City Library, Cathedral Close, Exeter, two divers took part in the investigation and excavation of its 45 feet depths. The archaeological unit of the city were hoping to make some finds in the accumulated silt, and also to resolve the tradition that a number of wells are linked by tunnels across the city.
(Source; Exeter Express & Echo, October 27th, 1984).
The Return of St Withburga?
BBC TV’s ‘Look East’ regional programme reported on 3/1/85 that St Withburga’s Well, in the churchyard of East Dereham, Norfolk, was reputed to be ‘running stronger and fresher than it has for centuries’ following attempts by the town’s mayor to have the saint’s remains returned to Dereham from Ely Cathedral.
St Withburga, an 8th century hermit, died and was buried c.743 at Dereham, but fifty years later her remains were found to be uncorrupted; they were therefore enshrined in the church. The well is said to have miraculously sprung up on this occasion. In 974, the body was stolen on the orders of Brithnoth, abbot of Ely, and with the approval of King Edgar and Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester. It was re-interred at Ely, on the pretext that the saint would have wished burial near her sister, St Etheldreda.
The television feature implied that the renewed vigour of the well was seen by local people as a sign of the saint’s approval for the mayor’s campaign – a remarkable testimony, if so, to a lingering respect for the well’s powers. It was also reported that a spectral figure of a lady, seen in the churchyard recently, might also be connected.
The mayor, in an interview, said the theft of the relics had deprived Dereham of prosperity for more than a millennium; it could once have become the capital of Norfolk, but had never recovered from the loss. The return of the saint’s bones would be a symbolic gesture. The matter is now before an ecclesiastical court.
There are several similar traditions connecting the removal of saint’s bones with the miraculous emergence of sacred water, e.g. St Ethelbert, Marden, Herefordshire; St Winefred, Woolston, Shropshire; apart from, of course, the more common legend of saints founding wells whilst still alive, usually by striking the ground – e.g. Sir John Schorne’s, North Marston, Buckinghamshire; St Milburga, at Stoke St Milborough, Shropshire; St Thomas A Becket’s, Otford, Kent. Legends accounting for the foundation of wells are a research strand worth pursuing.
Reference: hagiographic details on St Withburga from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Hugh Farmer, Oxford University Press, 1978.
New Life for Old Wells
I am grateful to Janet & Colin Bord for the following report;
‘It is always heartening to learn that a former holy well has been rediscovered and brought back into use. We were visiting a country house near the village of Llangwm in Clwyd recently, and we were discussing the water supply. The owner informed us that they had had an erratic supply of spring, water, until he determined to find a better supply, and while working on the problem he rediscovered the village holy well, Ffynnon Wnnod, which was on the hill just above the house. The name relates to the former dedication of the church to saints Gwnnod and Nathan. The well may have lost its reputation as a holy well because it later became known as Fron Fach Spring, and then it must have become altogether disused, because it had become overgrown until it was no more than a damp patch on the edge of a field. He dug it out, found a good water supply, and piped it down to the house. He also left an access to the well, which he covered with a lid specially made and carved, and he and his wife planted flowers around the well. Although the water is now being used for domestic purposes and not for baptism or cures as it probably was originally, at least the well has been saved from extinction.’
See also Living with a Holy Well, an article in Source (New Series) by Janet and Colin Bord.