Notes Towards a Survey of Shropshire Holy Wells – 2
by Laurens Otter
Lilleshall Hill is a much smaller outcrop of the same pre-Cambrian rocks as the Wrekin, 8 miles to the NNE. It stands right out on the North Salop plain, and to its west and north tributaries of the Severn have carved out wetlands (the ‘wealdmoors’ and Aquelate) even lower than the plain. The plain is old red sandstone and the wealdmoors have mixed alluvial clays into this. Lilleshall was the site of a mediaeval monastery, the remains of which stand about a mile SW of the hill (NGR respectively, SR 728157 and 737144); south of the hill, west and slightly north of the abbey is Lilleshall Grange.
St Mary’s Well, between the abbey and the north side of the Grange, is in relatively good repair. In the middle of a field, a little off a right-of-way, with a small palisade to keep cattle off, it is by no means noticeable, unless one is looking for it. But this would not seem to be the only wishing well in Lilleshall if a writer in the Shropshire Magazine (unfortunately pseudonymous) of October 1952 was correct. She recalled that in her youth young couples followed the canal from near Lilleshall Hill (which passes just east of the abbey) towards Muxton (probably Muxton Bridge Farm since the canal didn’t go to Muxton itself) and on the way passed a wishing well. This doesn’t suggest St Mary’s – there is a direct footpath running from the hill past the well, joining the road where it bridges the canal at the Abbey Farm; though possibly the couples deliberately sought a less direct path. Anyway that writer also recalled yet another well, to the east of the Abbey, somewhere within the spacious grounds of Lilleshall Hall (now a sports’ centre; NGR 749 148). The well was on a path then called the ‘Ghost Walk’. In discussing these with a member or our local Archaeological Society, he said he knew of two in the area; one (presumably St Mary) between the Abbey and the Grange, the other between the Abbey and the Hall (which could be either of the ‘wishing wells’ described).
Newport lies another 2 miles NNE from Lilleshall Hill. There – as with the Shropshire Meres – the traditions of well-worship merge with reverence (or more accurately outright pagan worship) for the spirits of lakes and fens. Hope (p. 148) tells of the importance of the mediaeval fish pool in which there was reputedly a mermaid; when this ‘vivary’ no longer existed, this creature apparently migrated a mile and a half across the Staffordshire border to Aqualate Mere. Whether there was ever a well distinct from vivary or mere, and to what extent the mermaid was ever transmogrified into a saint, or whether there even was a distinct saint, seems to be a matter of considerable doubt.
West of Newport (NGR 686 218) clearly marked on the l:50 000 map and signposted on the roads is a holy well within the parish of Tibberton. The well has given its name to the district round about, but I am told by friends who have visited it (one a school geography teacher armed with larger scale maps and compass) that it is by no means easy to locate on the ground. A gully takes one from the road, turns to a path, and the well is in a little wood, but while the spring is in a bricked-up construction, this is obviously for farming purposes. Water from the spring has carved out a little stream running down the short distance to the River Meese.
Curiously, despite the fact that the map-makers and the erectors of road signs all know of this well, it is not mentioned by Charlotte Burne, R. C. Hope or G. S. Hewins (either in his pamphlet or in his two contributions on wells in the Shropshire Magazine – though an in-passing reference in one of these to an holy well on Ercall Heath, a mile north, probably refers to this one). So, I have not been able to trace any dedication.
Hewins gives Sutton as a site of a Shropshire holy well, which presents some difficulty unless Sutton Maddocks (NGR 723 014) is meant – the only Suttons I can trace are a housing estate outside Bridgnorth and a parish – most of which is in Staffordshire – just north of Newport. It is described as a medicinal spring but no more details are given.
More is known, however, of St Chad’s Well, which gave its name to the district of Chatwell, and the hamlet of Chadwell in the parish of Sheriff Hales. St Chad’s reputation in founding the Lichfield diocese and his famous well at Lichfield are well enough known. The exact site of this well however is not known, and while Chadwell is in Shropshire, Chatwell is in Staffordshire, so it must be uncertain in which county the well lies.
South of Sherriff Hales, the Salop/Staffs. border swings east to an area chiefly known to non-Salopians for the fact that Charles II hid there after the battle of Worcester. Here, 12 miles east and 2 miles south of the Wrekin is Donington by Albrighton (Donington/Donnington is a common name in East Salop). By the parish church of St Cuthbert’s is a well dedicated to the same saint. Though Hewins in his pamphlet places it in Donnington – between the Wrekin and Lilleshall – and according to Hope the author of Shropshire Folk-lore refers to Dorrington, other sources (Howard Williams in the Shropshire Magazine, Hewins in the same publication, Hope in his general heading, and Burne) all agree on this site. Unfortunately, none of these authorities explain why there should be a dedication to St Cuthbert in East Shropshire, or gives any history. Indeed, all that is given is the passage by Hope; ‘This well, still resorted to for bathing weak eyes, is just below (the church) which is believed to have the same dedication, and which it doubtless preceded in sanctity’. The map reference is NGR 808 048.
St Peter’s Worfield (NGR 757 958) is also by the church, and shares its dedication, though dedications to St Peter are never surprising. Hope gives no hint of any therapeutic powers; but Hewins (in the magazine) says; ‘A spring of pure water, issuing from the sandstone rock is known as St Peter’s Well…though the wake was always held on the festival of St Matthew’. This well, though far on the east of Shropshire, is also far to the south of the others discussed, and yet cannot be easily grouped with any other examples. It thus stands out very much alone; but in a sense St Chad’s, St Peter’s and St Cuthbert’s wells belong together.
Travelling west across the Severn from Worfield the nearest holy well is at Shirlott Common; but it would be wrong not to begin a look at Central (and slightly East) Salop with those at Much Wenlock, a town at the centre of Wenlock Edge, a ridge of highly fosiliferous Silurian limestone. Here, in the 7th century, St Milburga founded a nunnery. Both Charlotte Burne and M. Wight hold that the saint chose Much Wenlock because of the sanctity of St Owen’s Well, the site of which was apparently lost after the Reformation, until the beginning of this century, when the well house (illustrated by Edna Whelan in Source (First Series), issue 3) was built – it is an extension to what is believed to be the oldest surviving house in the town.
Both a nunnery and a monastery were founded in Much Wenlock, destroyed by the Danes, rebuilt by Leofric, and affiliated (after the Conquest) to the Cluniac house of La Charitie sur Loire. A second well – St Milburga’s – survived, and its site was never lost, even though the abbey was pulled down. It is at the entrance of the abbey. Archaeological evidence suggests there was a conduit supplying a fountain within the abbey grounds (NGR 002 624).
I mentioned in Source (First Series), issue 3 that in both Little and Much Wenlock there are, on the outskirts, watering places for travellers, and that I suspected in both cases they may have been systematically built by the monks, and possibly conduited from a central spring. The fact that the monks were sufficiently interested in water-management to build a fountain shows that they had the capability to provide these drinking fountains in this way.
There is a fairly lengthy account in Lady Gaskell’s novel (which incorporates a considerable amount of folk history) – Old Shropshire Life – of the festival of the wells in Much Wenlock.
A couple of miles south west, Shirlett Common lies on the slopes of Wenlock Edge, and here a well stemming from a chalybeate or saline was, according to Hewins, reverenced. I do not know if it is pure coincidence that an area just south of the Common is called ‘the Hawthorn’, and that there is an Hawthorn Dingle, into which a stream from the Common flows, (the common is at NGR approx. 655985).
Five miles to the south (NGR 663 904) is Chetton, on the well at which Hope quotes a Miss Lythall-Neale; ‘It is not known whether it has any special dedication, but the church is dedicated to St Giles, and the waters of the spring were supposed to possess an healing virtue for cripples and weakly persons. The last person who was dipped in the well was Mary Ann Jones, about the year 1817; she subsequently died about 1830, aged 24 years’. Chetton is in the midst of a small area of rolling downland lying between the rocky Clee hills, and Bridgnorth (where the Severn cuts through sandstone).
To the West of Wenlock Edge, in the valley between it and the Lawley (one of that same range of pre-Cambrian hills as the Wrekin) lies Plaish (NGR 530 965). I fear I have to rely entirely on the Rev. Hewins for details of the well here, since there is no report of it elsewhere; though Fr. Hewins in three places (his pamphlet, in a letter and an article in the Shropshire Magazine) records that ‘the well is known locally as the Roman Baths, though no Roman masonry has been found. Its water is popularly believed to be cold in Summer and warm in Winter’.
This last characteristic – perverse temperature – appears to recur; thus in the Shropshire Magazine of December 1954, a ‘D. G. H., of Nottingham’ wrote; ‘My mother’s family have lived in Holywell Lane (Dawley) for about four generations…It was always much colder in Summer than Winter, and in Winter a resemblance of steam could be seen rising from it.’
This may not have been as important, however, as all that. Coal being very near the surface in East Salop, many very ancient coal mines are not charted, and as many of these have known spontaneous fires, there must have been many occasions when springs ran hot. My wife and I were surprised once to find, in snow, a spring we know in the woods above Wellington, flowing with very hot water.
Text © Laurens Otter (1986)
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