Notes Towards a Survey of Shropshire Holy Wells – 5
by Laurens Otter
Hope lists a well North East of Uriconium, presumably about NGR 567 091, buried, at the bottom of which is supposed to lie buried treasure. As far as I know, the excavations do not extend to that part of the Roman city.
On the North side of Haughmond Hill, north of the Augustinian abbey, at NGR 542 152, there is a well in a well house. Hope says nothing more of it than that, so it may be that when he wrote it was as difficult to gain access as it is now; the keys are kept by the gardener at the abbey, who does not approve of visitors.
The exact location of the Bill well – a corruption of Boiling Well – seems debatable. Hewins states it is near Wem, others put it nearer Shrewsbury, Charlotte Burne placing it at Hell Hole, or Heild Hold. All agree, however, that this is on the Shrewsbury-Wem road. I have been unable to locate Hell Hole or Heild Hold on the main or any subsidiary roads between Shrewsbury and Wem. This is possibly a reference to Hadnall (initially Headda’s Halh) at NGR 522 198. Charlotte Burne refers to Richard Gough’s History of Myddle. He says there was a place called Billmarsh/Bullmarsh/ Byllmars, once a common then a farm, and indeed the 1.33 inch map gives a Bilmarsh at NGR approx. 495 250, and that this was the site. In which case, the Bill Well was probably near the present B5476 somewhere near the railway cutting and bridge at Holbrook Hall (502 252).
I fear I hardly know the North West of Shropshire at all; which for this purpose is a great pity as I have not seen any of the wells in the area. St Winifred has wells at Oswestry and Woolston (though Howard Williams calls the latter simply Holy Well), St Oswald at Oswestry, St Buenno at Llanymynech (though as the village is cut in half by the Welsh border, this may be in Powys), Lady Ida’s Well is at Knockin, and the Eas Well is at Baschurch. Oswald’s and the Woolston well are clearly marked on the 1.33 inch map, as is also a Lythwell, a little east of Woolston, and a Crumpwell, near Wat’s Dyke, south of Oswestry.
The sandstone of the North Salop plain gives way to the Oswestry coal field, Upper and Middle/Lower coal measures in turn as we move west followed by Carboniferous limestone. Most of the Western border with Wales is Ordovician, but to the south and north of the area, the border is on sandstone.
Of the three Shropshire wells that the Bords thought notable enough to include in their Sacred Waters, the Woolston well and St Oswald’s are two, and pictures of them are to be found with descriptions. Though used until about the middle of the 19th century as a place to go for cures, or to collect bottles of water for those incapable of making a pilgrimage, St Oswald’s degenerated by the end of that century into a wishing well. The record of the death of Oswald in battle makes no mention of a well, and Charlotte Burne therefore deduced the dedication was late. The Woolston St Winifred’s is supposed to be where the saint’s body rested while being transported from Holywell (Flint) to Shrewsbury – a long way round, considering there was a Roman road from Chester to Uriconium – in 1138; and the water is said to be occasionally stained with her blood. Presumably the spring flows through iron ore or some such.
Only one writer – in the Shropshire Magazine – refers to the other St Winifred’s Well, at Oswestry, and as Woolston is only five miles from that town, I would assume he was confusing the two were it not that his list also includes Woolston, albeit only as ‘Holy Well’. Wells in close proximity are not all that surprising; Burne mentions that under the Woolston well there is another spring with remarkably clear water – presumably it does not get occasional ‘blood red spots’.
St Winifred’s uncle was St Bueno, so it is hardly surprising to find his well at nearby Llanymynech. He was a Herefordshire man who moved to North Wales and founded several monastic cells, becoming the dominant saint of the area.
According to Ellen Lloyd (Shropshire Magazine) the well house and well at Woolston were built by Edward Jones of Sandford, who bought the property in 1635 – he brought the 14th century beams from West Felton church. Whether there was an earlier well – let alone holy well – on the site is unrecorded.
I fear I know nothing of the identity of Lady Ida, nor of the whereabouts of her well near Knocking. The Eas (or East) well at Baschurch is described by Burne as being 1 mile to the West of the church (i.e. about halfway to Ruyton XI Towns), in a field beside the River Perry. I would guess from this description that one should follow the lane from the village to around NGR 408 214. There is a brook described as flowing from the spring to the river, and the map shows a pond with such a brook at NGR 412 214. There used to be a Palm Sunday Wake or festival where sugar lumps were taken with the water and cakes distributed, and there were competitive sports.
Finally, there are a few wells accidentally omitted from my previous articles in this series. Charlotte Burne mentions Potseden, a well in the parish of Oldbury (NGR 710 918) near Bridgnorth, so called as resembling a seething pot, and supposed to cure rheumatism; and also Sugar Well, another well in Ludlow, by the River Teme. Also, I have heard from Mr Eric Partridge, who farms at Chadwell Mill, Chadwell, Newport, where the St Chad’s well mentioned in Source (First Series), issue 4 still thrives and supplies a prodigious amount of water sufficing not only for the farm’s needs but also for neighbours. The mill lies between the hamlets of Chadwell (Salop) and Chatwell (Staffordshire) at NGR 787 146.
Burne,C.S., (1883); Shropshire Folk Lore, Chapter XXX, pp. 412-34 deal with well-worship.
Hope, R. C., (1893); Holy Wells, Legends and Traditions, pp. 128-48 deal with Shropshire.
Hewins, G. S., (1927); Byways of Shropshire, pp. 8-10 deal with wells.
There are some useful descriptions of the well ceremonial in Much Wenlock in a fictional work which incorporates much folk-history; Lady Gaskell’s Old Shropshire Life, in particular page 197ff.
The Shropshire Magazine in its first issue (May 1950) and in June 1950, Oct. 1952, Dec. 1954, Feb. 1955, Nov. 1955, Dec. 1955, Jan. 1957, Jul. 1957, Aug. 1957, Nov. 1964, Sept. 1969, Sept. 1979, has had letters, or short articles (and some photo’s), most of which are fairly informative.
Text © Laurens Otter (1988)
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