Notes & Queries

compiled by Mark Valentine

Bisley Ceremony

From; Lawrence Hunt, Swindon, Wiltshire.

‘….You may be interested to know that the Well Dressing ceremony that you mention in Holy Wells Today (Source (First Series) issue 1) at Bisley in Gloucestershire does indeed still take place every year on Ascension Day. I attended the ceremony a few years ago and was lucky to experience it on a warm sunny day. After a short thanksgiving service in the nearby church the vicar followed by the children of the parish parade down to the ‘well’ – really seven wells each covered by a small arch, situated in a small semi-circular enclosure. The wells are then strewn with flowers and wreaths and, on the year I attended, the words ‘Ascension Day’ made out of flowers were hung round the top of the enclosure. The ceremony was accompanied by a small band and some children reading prayers. It was a very friendly village event, although clearly it attracted many visitors as the streets were crowded and the church overflowing with people.

Details of the event are obtainable from the vicar of Frampton Mansell (the parish with which Bisley is combined). The ceremony appears to have taken place for many years now with no break – when I asked if it was ‘weather permitting’, I was told in no uncertain terms that if the ceremony was to take place on Ascension Day, then it would, whatever the weather!’


St Olave’s Well

From; Andrew Fayle, Horam, Sussex.

‘….I wanted to mention a Sussex holy well of which little seems to be known – St Olave’s Well, in the parish of Offham near Lewes, on Allington farm. We lived in Allington farmhouse over 60 years ago and know it as an unfailing spring of excellent water. There was – in those days – some fragments of worked stones of a chapel (?) maybe 12th century laying about, and also fragments of a font; and water flowed out into a small pond – for cattle! My father and I tried to rescue some of these stones, but before we could extract some, the then owner of the land had them dug out, and the font (?) went into concrete in a new bull pen he was building! The site is now hard to find as all the old hedges have been grubbed out. But today – 60 odd years on – I can still pinpoint it. The adjoining farm is Tulleywells (St Olaves – T’Olave’s – Tully?).’

(Mr Fayle’s letter has preserved details of a holy well which might otherwise have been forgotten. He has also kindly provided me with a map showing the location of St Olave’s Well – M.V.).


A Hertfordshire Lady Well

From; Mrs F. E. Gaythorpe, Glastonbury, Somerset.

‘….You might like to hear about a well which I knew as a girl, in 1933, and which I have always thought must have had a long history. This well was in the grounds of a house called Tolmers Park, then a boarding school at which I was a pupil. The house stood on the outskirts of a tiny village called Newgate Street, and the postal address was Cuffley, Hertfordhire. The village of Cuffley, with a railway station, was about a mile away.

The legend existed in the school that this Georgian house was built over the cellars of a former Tudor mansion, in which Queen Elizabeth’s unfortunate relative Lady Arabella Stuart had once been held prisoner. The well in the grounds was said to be a wishing well, to be approached with the words “Mater sacrissima ora pro nobis”, and a coin or other gift thrown in. I believe the authority for this practice was found in a book by Mary Cholmondeley (a novelist of brief repute in her day) whose family home this had been.

Obviously – I thought! – this Latin, and Christian, and Roman Catholic formula superseded an older and pagan one. And so I have always wondered if this was a neglected and ancient holy well. Curiously enough, on the two occasions when I expressed a trivial wish at the well, these were instantly and dramatically granted! The well is at the western (furthest from Cuffley) end of the house and in my day was in the depths of a shrubbery. A few years ago the house was a geriatric hospital under the NHS….’

(Again, we must be grateful to Mrs Gaythorpe for setting down her recollections of a most intriguing well. Any further information, especially concerning the connexion with Lady Arabella Stuart, would be very welcome – M.V.).


St Michael

From; W. H. Cowling, Titchfield, Hampshire.

‘….I am researching into ancient churches dedicated to St Michael – with or without All Angels – chiefly in relation to their topography. Many of them are associated with pre-Christian sacred sites – classically hill top sites, but many are associated with water – islands, headlands, river crossings, as well as those having springs or wells within or near their churchyards. Those I have recorded with such wells include Arthuret (Cumbria), Harbledown (Kent), Houghton-le-Spring (Durham), Long Stanton (Cambs.), Bolton le Sands (Lancs.). Frustratingly, none of the churches associated with well dressing in Derbyshire are dedicated to St Michael. I am sure there are many more St Michael churches with wells connected to them….’

(Would readers having information on St Michael associations at holy wells please pass this on to Mr Cowling? Hope records one; the Bords’ four; Logan gives five Irish examples, but it is not amongst the most common of dedications – M.V.).


Cumbrian Wells

From; Jim Taylor Page, M.B.E., B.Sc., Penrith, Cumbria.

‘….It is not surprisng that we have a large number of holy wells in this area where early christianising influences changed many Pagan sites and practices into more acceptable ones; St Michael is associated with the change quite frequently and there are nearly 30 churches so dedicated. When one visits them it is to find a church of obviously ancient foundation situated on a mound, often with a Saxon stone cross in the churchyard, which itself is usually circular, and almost always there is a nearby spring or well dedicated to St Michael, St Kentigern, or known as the “flow” or “Helly” well.

Sometimes there is a tradition that the church is on the site of a stone circle and the situation on a mound and circular churchyard tend to confirm this. If a stone circle is “dowsed” for water, sure enough it is very frequently discovered….it is therefore not surprising to find the same thing where a Christian church has adopted the dame site. Where the church has been re-sited in Norman times, as in my own village, (Askham), there is a nearby mound which had on it a little chapel and on the side of it emerges a spring. When I visit a new church with earlier Saxon links I can often be shown a now overgrown and forgotten well site or spring. An interesting instance of this exists at Aldingham, where the original church was washed away in 1397 by the River Eden changing course. The holy well (St Michael’s) is now on the other side of the river. Not far away is a Morgan’s well. Clearly an unchristianised one!

It would be interesting to dowse other old churches. I feel sure their frequent damp conditions could in many cases be put down to the water worship of long forgotten ancestral pagans, and in this area at any rate, that the church occupies a pagan site, maybe a stone circle.

Hope (1893) gives details of many of the wells I have visited (he records 26 in Cumberland – M.V.) and I know of quite a number of others that are not in his list. The “waking” of the wells was carried out until about 100 years ago;

The wells of rocky Cumberland
Have each a saint or patron
Who holds an annual festival
The joy of maid and matron.

And on this day as erst they wont
The youths and maids repair
To certain wells on certain days
And hold a revel there.

This “revel” was known as Shaking Bottle Sunday. Traditionally the holy water was mixed and shaken with liquorice – and maybe conveniently acted as a purgative after the winter. At one village (Satterthwaite) votive offerings were hung on an old oak. Significantly, the name is probably Sattra (Pagan) and thwaite (clearing).

We have upwards of 100 holy wells in Cumbria and I agree it is a great pity to find that too often they are overgrown and derelict, though one I recently visited had been cleared….’

(The significance of holy wells to their surrounding topography is a question which still requires much research. It is always intriguing to notice their relationship to the local church, and any other nearby ancient monuments. Other readers’ comments are welcomed. The next letter continues this theme – M.V.).

Roman Sites

From; Alan Cleaver, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

‘In hunting for High Wycombe’s holy well it was noted that its location was almost certainly next to a Roman villa. I then re-read Source (First Series) issue1 and realised how many holy wells are near a Roman villa or site (e.g. Holwell near Cranborne, and Fifehead Neville well). It is easy to overlook the significance of Roman or later remains near holy well sites, but the Romans may have purposefully built close to springs treated with respect by the locals. On any reports of holy wells it would be useful to know what has been near the well over the centuries.’

(The healing springs at Bath and Buxton, amongst others, were devoted to Roman water deities. Eric Wood, Collins’ Field Guide to Archaeology, notes; ‘The many St Helen’s wells in Yorkshire arises from a confusion between the Christian Helen, mother of Constantine, and Elen, a Celtic goddess of armies and roads; many of her wells, such as that at Thorp Arch, were on Roman roads….’ An altar of the Twentieth Legion, dedicated to ‘the Nymphs and Fountains’ was found in a field at Great Boughton, Chester, with ‘abundant springs of fine water’ close by, in 1821. The remains of some sacred building were also uncovered [The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1823], The extent to which the Romans made existing native water shrines their own is definitely worthy of research – M.V.) .


%d bloggers like this: