Notes Towards a Survey of Shropshire holy wells – 3
by Laurence Otter
First, a postscript to my earlier articles. In the first, I said that a holy well is listed as being in the Lawley district, which might mean the village of that name between Wellington and Dawley, or alternatively Lawley Hill, near the Long Mynd. I still do not know which; but interestingly, a new resident in Lawley village has cut back undergrowth to reveal a well (marked on the old 2½” map, at NGR 675 082) on the south west side of the A442. This is an early Saxon salt road, and the section through Lawley Common is probably original. Location does not of course determine therapeutic qualities (or sanctity) except insofar as it determines geology, but main roads frequently were routed to pass such wells. It is a long shot, and I have not found adequate evidence, but this may be the Lawley well. It has the square form that in Shropshire seems to have been adopted when the cult of mediaevalism started by Walter Scott revived upper class interest in holy wells.
I had forgotten that besides the wells I mentioned at Little Wenlock there is also a Witchwell Lane in the area. 3Foxall’s Shropshire Field Names mentions a field called Holy Well in Much Wenlock parish; as all the surviving holy wells are actually in the town, the field presumably refers to yet another one. Foxall also mentions that many Shropshire fields are called ‘Maiden Well’ or ‘Lady Well’, suggesting far more wells dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary than are otherwise recorded.
My thanks to Allen Meredith for his piece on Hope Bagot (Source (First Series), issue 5), one of eight holy wells in South and South East Salop. He omits to mention that Hope Bagot is in an area rich in legend. Clee Hill, 4 km to the north, is of a dark igneous rock, the Dhusyone, which gives a lowering impression, and the area abounds in stories of ghosts, of which the most famous is the ‘angel’ supposedly seen by drivers on the A4117 road, a mile and a half from Hope Bagot church. M. Wight (Shropshire Magazine, August 1959) mentions that the well was restored in 1879 as a Jubilee memorial. The area’s legends do not spring only from the darkness of the Clee Hills; to the east lies Wyre Forest, once a pagan sanctuary.
Just under five miles north of Hope Bagot (NGR 568 824) is the well of St Milburga in Stoke St Milborough – described by Wight as the most famous of Shropshire’s holy wells. It is clearly marked on maps. This is the St Milburga who founded Wenlock Abbey, but the legends connected with the well bear clear pagan connections and probably date back to some pre-Christian goddess whose name bore sufficient resemblance to the saint to be adapted. The story is given by Charlotte Burne (Shropshire Folk Lore) and R. C. Hope, and space does not permit a full account, but Wight’s version (which differs in some points from the others) though brief, has charm; ‘Pursued by men with bloodhounds she fell from her horse at this spot. Water being needed for her wounds she bade her horse strike the rock and a spring gushed forth.’
I was going to confess to having failed to find the New Found Well which is given by Hewins and others as being on Titterstone Clee; but I find that there was no trace of it even in Hewins’ time. Only the spring is marked (at NGR 606 782, above Cleeton St Mary) and it lies by one of my favourite paths. I do not know if it has any dedication.
Three and a half miles westwards from St Milburga’s Well lies Rosamund’s Well (NGR 517 844), named after Rosamund ‘The Fair’ Clifford, (whose claims to the right to patronise a holy well might be queried by puritans) whom legend wrongly depicts as having been killed by a jealous Eleanor of Aquitaine. Rosamund’s Well lies near the river Corve; a little way down river from it, in Ludlow, is the Boiling Well, so called from continual bubbling. This was, it is reputed, blessed by palmers ‘to be a boon and a blessing to Ludlow, as long as the Sun shines and water runs’, in order that they might cure a little girl’s blindness (see Hope, p. 143). The story links this to two palmers voyaging in the days of Edward the Confessor to the Holy Land, who were given a ring by a manifestation of St John the Evangelist; and also with a palmers’ window in the church. No doubt this was a confusion of differing legends, if only because palmers originated after the time of St Edward, and a King who forbade the collecting of St Peter’s pence would hardly have favoured palmers.
Just how many wells are to be found in Ludlow is a little hard to determine, as holy wells are variously attributed to St Julian (Mother Julian of Norwich), St Juliana, St Lillian; and there is also the Boiling Well, a wishing well in Sunny Gutter (Gutter is a common stream name in South Salop), and the Bone Well at Richard’s Castle. Hope attributes St Juliana’s (and St Julian’s Church in Shrewsbury) to St Juliana of Nicodema. Whilst St Julian’s and St Juliana’s wells are almost certainly the same, one cannot be so certain about St Lillian’s, which is said to be in Lidford, immediately south of the town.
Hewins says of the Bone Wells; ‘This spring is remarkable from the fact that its waters, in wet seasons, cast up numbers of small fish bones from the fossil-bearing strata below. In Muchison’s Siluria is an engraving of the well with an explanation.’
Rosamund’s Well lies under and to the south of Wenlock Edge; the Edge is Silurian limestone, highly fossiliferous. The hills on the other side of the valley are old sandstone. Most of the Ludlow area is also Silurian on the south side of the Teme (and in the town itself, which is a Silurian spur on the North of the river); to the north of the river is Old Red Sandstone. This group of wells therefore are the product of similar conditions with the wells all on or near the border line between the two sorts of rocks, both highly porous, but with significant chemical differences.
I remarked in Source (First Series), issue 3 on the fact that the Clun valley, the south western bulge of Shropshire where the Forest seems carved out of Wales, has no examples recorded in any of the works I have been able to trace of holy wells. This is remarkable since the valley and the forest not only contain the ‘quietest places under the sun’, but its villages are well known for keeping alive ancient local customs, and the whole place is redolent with a feeling of mystery. The feeling that it is carved out of Wales is in a gruesome sense only too literally true. In the 12th Century, the Lord of Clun gave a reward to anyone who brought to him the skin of a ‘wild Welshman’; a ‘civilised’ custom imported by the Normans and not unknown later in Ireland.
Though I can find no record of a holy well, two field names provide grounds for speculation. In the parish of Bettws y Crwyn (the most westerly in Salop, best known for the Cantlin Stone) there is a field called Jew’s Well; while in the parish of Bishop’s Castle, a small market town NE of the Clun Valley, there is one called Christian Well.
It is hardly likely that Bishop’s Castle ever had so many Jews that there was a need to reserve a well for Christians; nor that Jews were sufficiently common in the tiny village of Bettws y Crwyn that they were driven out to a separate well. Roth, in his history of pre-expulsion British Jewry, gives no record of Jews in Shropshire whatsoever except a reference to a joke in Giraldus Cambrensis’ Journey through Wales. So one can only assume that the Jew’s Well was singular not plural, and referred to a connection with a particular Jew. The lack of a genitive in the name Christian Well may then denote an holy well.
It is hard to see geological reasons for the absence of holy wells in the Clun area, much of the valley and forest is Silurian, some of the hills are the remains of overlying Old Red Sandstone and Shales; and there are deposits caused by the Pleistocene Ice Age.
There are several wells in the next group but before I describe them, I must first describe the geography of the Stretton Hills. I have previously mentioned that the Wrekin, and indeed the Malverns a long way further south, are all parts of the same pre-Cambrian chain. East of the A49, there are five or more hills of this range, then on the other side of the valley an entirely different and older pre-Cambrian massive forms the Long Mynd; the rocks have long shifted so that the strata are nearer vertical than horizontal; the Long Mynd is moorland much like Exmoor, though as the rock is harder the valley sides are steeper.
A different variety of the Long Myndian pre-Cambrian rock forms a line of smaller hills west of the Mynd, and then a less ancient but sharper and more jagged rock type throws up the Stiperstone ridge, topped by rock formations like the Dartmoor Tors. Beyond these, Shelve, so called because it forms a plateau jutting out from the Stiperstones, then Hope Valley, and then another series of smaller hills, North of Corndon, which though in Wales is always accounted one of the ‘Six Shropshire Summits’.
It is on the Long Mynd that the springs rise to feed Osborne’s works at Cwm Dale (see Source (First Series), issue 5). In the last century, Church Stretton was a spa town, and the pump still stands in the middle of the town for those who would taste its waters. But there seems to be no trace of a holy well; if the ancients had so designated a well, its proximity to the Roman road would have made it famous.
There are two holy wells on the Long Mynd range. Harry Mullard, writing in the Shropshire Magazine of December 1955, describes one half a mile north of Plowden, on the Asterton road, overlooking Myndtown, by a large boulder in the bottom of a valley. The well is amongst some Alder trees, a stone trough with a hole in the stone through which water gushes up. The second Long Mynd well – in fact, group of wells, – was in comparatively recent times a well dressing site.
Betchcott well dressing took place on May 14th until 1810 (see Hope, and Wight). The village is at NGR 436 986 but where the well is I would not like to guess. It is described by Hope as a road-side well, but the only well on the map is in a field west of the village.
Howard Williams refers to a ‘boiling well’ on the Long Mynd; whether this is one of the two mentioned, or another whose situation neither he nor anyone else describes, I do not know.
A little to the north, and slightly west of the Plowden well, lies Prolley Moor, and a brine well regarded as holy is recorded there (mainly Hewins); there are two wells marked on the old style 2½” maps on the moor but none on the new style. Given that one well lies immediately south of Robury Ring (the new maps have two by the nearby Moorhouse), I would assume that the well is linked with the ring (NGR 397 933).
All three of these wells lie on the intersection of the two levels of Long Myndian rock, and would presumably therefore produce similar waters. Whether these, like those of Church Stretton, are chalybeate springs I cannot say, nor do I know of any dedications of the wells.
North west of Prolley Moor, across the rugged ridge of the Stiperstones, lies Shelve Hill, on the western slope of which there is a disused mine called Ladywell. The area is now a forestry commission plantation, and it is possible that there may be a spring hidden between the trees, but there was no record of where the well was when the mine was working and it is more than likely the waters were diverted. The mine was at NGR 329 995.
Rorrington had well-dressing fairs at least into the last century. They were held on Ascension Day. Because the fairs assembled on Rorrington Green (now enclosed) to proceed over the hills to the wells, some accounts assume the well was on the Green, which is called Halliwell Green. However, though there may have been a well there in Mediaeval times, and though there is a spring by the Iron Age fort, locals are sure the holy wells are the springs on the far side of the hill, on Sunnybank (Stapeley Ridge) – NGR 317 001 – and the stream flowing from these is called Holywell Brook. There is no sign anywhere of a well structure, but Rorrington residents are proud of their well-heritage, and informative on it. Sir Thomas Offlay’s account is quoted at length by both Charlotte Burne and Hope; and he says that the well-dressing was discontinued about 1833.
Moving outside the area of the Shropshire hills, there are to their west two wells that are claimed as Shropshire holy wells though – such is the border at this point – Wales may dispute the claim. The border was changed at the end of last century and this probably explains why the well in Church Stoke appears in several works on Shropshire holy wells; but this is now undoubtedly in Wales (NGR 271 943). More debatable is Rhosgoch which though in Wales lies within an English parish (Worthen); both a wishing and a healing well, it is not clear from the map where exactly the well is, though there is a spring north of Rhos farm. Rhosgoch is at NGR 285 065.
Text © Laurens Otter (1986)
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