Holy Wells Today

compiled by Mark Valentine

Discovery of Water Shrine

The Daily Telegraph of 24/8/85 carried a report concerning excavations by a Manchester University team, it’ the grounds of Dean Hall, Littledean, in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, which have revealed the remains of a Roman spring-head temple on the site of an earlier Celtic water shrine. The pagoda-shaped building was described as the only known example of its kind in Britain. Archaeologist Barry Jones said the temple had been almost completely demolished. probably by early Christians, and that it was originally part of a much larger complex, second only to Colchester. The shrine is dated to between the 2nd and 4th Century A.D. Credit for the discovery of the site belongs to the Hall’s owner, Donald Macer-Wright, who pursued local traditions about a temple, and later investigated outlines revealed by aerial photography.



Source has been informed of the following recent restoration projects at holy wells;

King’s Newton, Derbyshire. The Melbourne Civic Society reconstructed a stone arch over a spring here, which is mentioned as Halywell-sich in 1336. The arch was built in 1662 by Robert Hardinge of King’s Newton Hall, but fell down some years ago. The Parish, District and County Councils, as well as individuals, contributed funds. A re-dedication service was held by the Vicar or Melbourne. See the article by Howard Usher in Source (First Series) Issue 4.

Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset. St Wite’s Well has been newly restored, and was the subject of a well-dressing ceremony and blessing by the Bishop of Salisbury on 24th July. See Source (First Series) Issue 1 for a note on the well.

Penegoes, Powys. The Machynlleth Civic Society recently restored a holy well here.


Lourdes Drought

Several national newspapers carried brief items in late September reporting that pilgrims to this famous shrine have been asked to drink less water from the fountain because a drought is drying up its source. Past ages would certainly have regarded this as an ominous portent!


Incident at Cuddington Spring

Alan Cleaver, and other members of the High Wycombe-based folklore group Strange have been active in the past few months in following up in the field my article on Buckinghamshire holy wells published in Source (First Series) issue 2. They have located the exact sites of several examples, and carried out restoration work at Cuddington and Long Crendon. Their work was described in a feature in the South Bucks Star newspaper of 13th September. Their highly laudable efforts had one unwelcome consequence, as Alan Cleaver reports;

‘It is sad to report in the same issue as Cuddington well’s rediscovery that it has seemingly been the site of a black magic ritual. The chairman of Cuddington Parish Council telephoned me on September 22nd and told me some candles and skins of two sheep had been found at the well. The discovery had naturally caused much upset in the village but nobody knew who had done it or why. The sheep skins were apparently hung from poles either side of the well. Villagers had responded by cleaning up the well, and the chairman of the Parish Council said they would keep an eye on it.

It was a great shock to members of Strange, who visited the well as soon as they could to re-dress and bless the well. How had the desecrators known of the well? Had they read about it in Source or in the South Bucks Star? Or had they just noticed it while driving through Cuddington?

This does raise the whole question of publishing the location of holy wells. Should we publish this information or should we carry on the work irrespective of the silly idiots who desecrate ancient sites in this way? It is encouraging that Cuddington Parish Council are prepared to help look after the well rather than simply cover it once more in hedgerow, and thus avoid any potential future unpleasantness.’

I would join Alan in applauding the sensible approach of the villagers and Parish Council to this lamentable incident. A number of other points arise. Firstly, I am absolutely sure that no Source reader could be in any way involved. Our modest circulation means that I have some knowledge of each individual reader, and I know that all share a genuine respect for holy wells. Secondly, the reputation of Cuddington’s spring was based solely on its attributed medicinal qualities, and this pathetic display was thus as ludicrously inept as it was shameful. Thirdly, I suspect Alan’s question as to whether we should continue publishing information on holy well locations is rhetorical. To stop doing so, as a result of this incident, would be to gratify the people responsible. It is possible that this was an isolated example of melodramatic ignorance on behalf of some passing crank; but obviously the problem must be carefully monitored. The incident does illustrate, however, the need to involve the local community as Strange have done, so that the integrity of our intentions may be firmly established. It is to be hoped that Strange will not be deterred, and they will continue their excellent work in renewing the holy wells of their county – M.V.


Mad Hatter’s Picnic Party

On the 18th August 1985 there was the first Holy Wells Research & Preservation Group picnic, at Binsey on the outskirts of Oxford. Groups of people came from Oxford, High Wycombe, London and Cambridge.

Binsey was chosen for the meeting for a number of reasons. 1985 is the 1250th anniversary of the death of St Frideswide, and according to legend the Treacle Well at Binsey (treacle in the mediaeval sense of healing fluid) was the result of this saint’s prayers to St Margaret. 1985 is also the 120th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It is well known that this book developed from a story told by the Revd. Charles Dodgson to the Liddell girls on a trip up the Thames from Oxford to Godstow. On this trip they would have passed Binsey and it seems likely that this is where Dodgson got the inspiration for the Hatter’s tale of the children who lived at the bottom of a treacle well. Last, but not least, Binsey has a fine pub, ‘The Perch’, which has recently won an award from Oxford CAMRA.

The morning of the 18th was somewhat cloudy and at about midday it started to rain. We therefore met in ‘The Perch’ where we sampled the excellent Harvest bitter, talked of wells, and tried like most other people in the pub to ignore the guitarist and his drum synthesiser. After a while it stopped raining and the dual motivation of hunger and the guitarist’s imminent second set, drove us out to the riverside.

By the riverside the Mad Hatters aspect of the gathering came to the fore with a wonderfully varied collection of headgear appearing. Indeed the silliness of some of the hats drew envious glances from passing anglers, whose khaki bush hats were quite put to shame.

After a wholesome repast with liberal liquid refreshment, we proceeded to the church of St Margaret and the nearby well. Fresh flowers at the well evidenced a continuing local respect for the site. Unfortunately the water was not very clear and seemed unsuitable for drinking. The church itself has great charm.

Whereas many churches are marred by ugly electrical fittings, at Binsey there are only oil lamps and candle holders. Inside the church Alan Cleaver gave a short talk on Chesham’s ‘Mad Hatter’ and Clive Harper outlined the story of St Frideswide and St Margaret’s Well [1]. We then returned to the well for a brief moment of reverence and meditation before walking back to the cars.

An invitation to go back to Chris Mawson’s house was gratefully accepted and we drove the short distance in convoy. At Chris’s house we were able to relax and many interesting conversations developed. There was talk of possible meetings at other sites and some useful liaison between the Oxford and High Wycombe group organisers. Many people had long journeys in front of them and so the gathering ended in the late afternoon.




1. A critical review of the development of the legend is given in F. M. Stenton’s ‘St Frideswide and her Times’, Oxoniensia I, pp. 103-112 (1936).

Text © Mark Valentine (1985)

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