Notes Towards a Survey of Shropshire Holy Wells – 4
by Laurens Otter
Moving northwards from the Stretton hills we travel towards Shrewsbury. Central Shropshire has about ten holy wells and one satanic one. A spur of the pre-Cambrian Longmyndian rock runs from the south west to fairly near Shrewsbury cutting between two areas of upper coal measures. East of the town, Haughmond Hill is also pre-Cambrian. emerging out of the boomerang-shaped coal-measure bed, north of which lies the sandstone of the North Salop plain.
The area was heavily populated by religious orders in the high Middle Ages; Shrewsbury alone besides a very famous Benedictine abbey, had three houses of friars, six colleges of secular priests/canons, and four hospitals/hospices; and no doubt – as a holy well in the grounds of a religious house meant pilgrims and increased revenue – there was competition to be near such wells and effort (perhaps not unmixed with pious fraud) on the part of the less well situated (excuse pun) to find new curative springs, duly hallowed.
Shrewsbury then was the chief trading market for Welsh wool, then the basis of the British economy. It lies a few miles up river from Uriconium, which had been one of the largest Roman towns in Britain, and where to this day stands the largest surviving piece of Roman urban building north of the Alps; and so, at a time when culture was equated with Latin influence, Shrewsbury was a cultural as well as trading centre. Politically the Welsh border was of enormous importance. Acton Burnell, just south of Shrewsbury, was at least twice the site of Parliament, and was the seat of the Exchequer of the Jews, and therefore played a major role in mediaeval British history.
Therefore, at the time of major interest in wells, central Shropshire would have been very wealthy, and would have attracted wool merchants from all over Europe, many of whom may have found it convenient to combine their commercial travels with a pilgrimage to a well.
The satanic Frog Well is in fact only just north east of the outcrops of the Stretton hills; Acton Burnell is again on pre-Cambrian rock (NGR 534 005). A nearby coppice is called Shadwell and just to the south are the hamlet and hall of Chatwall, though whether either or both derive from St Chad’s Well I don’t know.
Both Hope and Charlotte Burne quote the same account of Frog Well, the latter at considerably greater length, mentioning inter alia their source’s suspicion that wells have been confused, since no frogs are to be found in Frog Well. According to this authority, the well should be called the Causeway Well (it lies by a Roman road called the Devil’s Causeway) and the true Frog’s Well must be somewhere nearby. Whatever its name, the one located is made with large placed but natural-looking stone slabs; perhaps taken from the Roman road or other structures, or built by the Romans when they built the road. The road is a side. road, the original route of Watling Street (which later went north from Uriconium to Chester) had come north west from London to Uriconium then swung south again along the Welsh border; the Devil’s Causeway left this south western arm of Watling Street (NGR 530 033) to run due south. Most such smaller Roman roads in this area were connected with mine-workings and/or small quarries.
Another non-hallowed but noted well just north of the Mynd in this area is at Huglith (NGR 407 021); the only well marked on the map near here is at Outrack (NGR 413 017) but whether this is the one in question called Diggory’s Well and supposedly haunted by a man of that name, I do not know.
Just North of Acton Burnell lies the village of Pitchford, supposedly so called because it had a well with a coating of pitch. This may have been all pitch initially, not unique in this county, as there is a ‘tar tunnel’ underneath the eastern end of Blist’s Hill museum. The pitch in the well gave the water therapeutic properties, but earlier the distilled pitch used to be sold as far away as London as ‘British Oil’ (before the days of privatisation!).
There were two spas on the south of Shrewsbury (neither mentioned in Havins’ book) which Hewins implies were originally holy wells. One was Hanly’s – there is a Hanly’s House at Hook-a-Gate (NGR 468 092), the other was Bothby’s given as at Pulley Common (NGR 484 092). Part of the Common has now become the housing estate of Bayston Hill, the spa may have been up to ¼ mile further south. Hewins also mentions a well at Lyth Hill (NGR 480 068) but gives no details, and although only one well appears on the new 2½” map, there are a whole host of them on the old. The Hill is of pre-Cambrian rock and the well would be chalybeate.
Holy Cross Abbey (Benedictine) is to be found at NGR 498 125, at least that part of it which was not knocked down in 1836 to make the Holyhead road. I’ve not seen it, but have been told by one of the residents of nearby Holywell Road that the well is ‘at the bottom of his garden’.
A number of Shrewsbury wells I have been unable to locate. Hewins and other authorities refer to a well at Pengwerne Ferry. I can only find record of one ferry in the town, at Preston (NGR 523 121) and cannot be sure this was once called Pengwerne – the name means ‘the end of the alder grove’. Pengwern road is on the other side of Shrewsbury (NGR 484 126) and though it may once have been longer and reached the river at two points, I can find no suggestion of a ferry at either.
Two wells, SS. Peter and Paul, and in one account another, are said to have been found in a field near the Burnt Mill Bridge in the parish of SS. Peter and Paul. No map that I have shows a mill or bridge of that name, but according to Hope the dual dedication was an alternative one for the Abbey, in which case Pengwerne Ferry must be the one at Preston, and the sites of the two wells must be in a field on one or other side of the Severn near NGR 523 120; but as the field was drained and the site lost before any of the authorities recorded them, there would be no possibility of locating them more closely.
Hope gives a St John’s Well in Wem (quoting Charlotte Burne) and says that the nearby chantry of the same dedication was probably built to be hear the well. There is no mention of the chantry in Pevsner and I fear I do not know where it is. Wem however is not so large that it would be difficult to trace.
Wem is on Triassic rather than Bunter sandstone like the north of the North Salop plain, and I have been criticised by the geologically knowledgeable for leaving Moreton Say’s holy well in North Central Salop rather than treating it with those to the north of the Wrekin area. The village is at NGR 630 345, close to the boundary between the Triassic and Bunter sandstone; Hewins seems to be the only source for a well here; he lists it as chalybeate.
There is at Wolverley NW of Wem (NGR 470 310), a Holywell Moor on the map, but of this I know no more.