Some Ancient and Holy Wells of Devon
by Laurence Hunt
Devon is a county of water and wells. With its majestic rivers, Dart, Exe, Torridge, Taw, Avon and Teign, fed by countless small brooks and streams, its sticky damp red soils in the lowlands, and the marshy misty heights of Dartmoor, water seems ubiquitous. Venerable old farmhouses huddle in sheltered coombes next to springs that have been their lifeline for centuries. Even today, many rely on them rather than go to the expense of installing tap water.
Despite its abundance, water has never been taken for granted in Devon (the drought of 1976 came as a shock to those modern Devonians who had begun to accept its availability without regard). So in a county of so much water, there has also been much water veneration…
Considerably more than 200 holy wells have been recorded in Devon, but details about them are often brief, sketchy and frequently spread among obscure sources. Most printed material is very dated and the present condition of most wells is unknown. What follows is an attempt to give details – and in particular details about the present state – of over 30 wells in Devon. Most are worth visiting – all are worth preserving.
Six figure grid references are given for all the wells discussed and a sketch map gives the approximate location of each well.
Approximate Location of Featured Wells
- Ashburton, Holy Well (SX 754 694)
A pleasant surprise in the rather straggly outskirts of one of Dartmoor’s stannary towns. A restored well, with water emerging from a granite wall in an enclosure by the roadside. An old cross stands adjacent. The well was known for eye cures.
- Belstone (SX 620 935)
A curative spring on the common at Belstone overlooking the enchanting Belstone Cleave (the walk down the Cleave from here to Lady Well at Sticklepath (q.v.) cannot be recommended too strongly). A small granite structure is built over the spring and the water has no doubt been used by villagers from the earliest times. Whether it may be regarded as ‘holy’ is unclear. Although the church of St Mary is close at hand, the well has no dedication.
- Bradley, Holy Well (SX 850 709)
Another curative spring, which issues into the River Lemon by the side of a bridge near the manor of Bradley (now National Trust) near Newton Abbot. It is known locally as a wishing well and said never to dry up. A baby born blind was bathed in the water and gained its sight.
- Braunton, St Brannoc’s Holy Well (SS 487 374)
Visited in a torrential downpour in the spring of 1984, this well had a haunting effect on the sodden author. Whilst it lacks its foreign counterpart’s healing fame, it could be described as Devon’s Lourdes. Situated next to the little chapel of St Brannoc’s, on the northern edge of the town, the well is approached down a picturesque high-hedged drive. The well consists of a large stone-lined pool overhung by trees growing on the steep rocky hillside behind the well. Above, in a cleft in the rocks, stands a statue of Our Lady. Luxuriant ferns and other greenery surround the well and cover the rocky hillside behind. The present chapel dates only from 1957, but is on the site of an ancient medieval chapel which had fallen into ruins by the 18th century. It was restored as a Catholic chapel of ease by Mrs Incledon-Webber as a memorial to her parents and rededicated in 1958.
- Broadclyst, Holy Well (SS 992 009)
Situated in a small wood on the south side of the lane that leads from the B3181 to Lower Comberoy Farm, about ¼ mile from the B road. A dilapidated gate leads into the wood, and after a very short distance the wood closes in and in a hollow is this very imposing stone structure. Its size and setting make it one of Devon’s ‘best’ holy wells and it is surprising that it is so little known or documented. Built of local Killerton stone, the well building consists of a large, well-carved, rounded arch and flanking stonework. Within, a deep pool of clear water harbours a flourishing community of water snails. Stone steps lead down into the water. On my last visit a wire frame had been placed across the entrance, presumably to prevent animals falling in the water.
The small wood has a very brooding atmosphere and is clearly un-managed, and although the M5 is a mere ½ mile away, it is another world. One can only hope that agricultural ‘improvements’ which are currently playing havoc with Devon’s patchwork of hedgerows and small woods, do not result in the destruction of this wood and its ‘occupant’.
Of the well’s history, I have been able to discover very little. The present structure cannot be many centuries old – if that – and may well have been erected by the occupants of nearby Killerton House, on whose estate (now National Trust) it stands.
- Dawlish, Lidwell Chapel and Holy Well (SS 924 761)
The site of one of Devon’s most gruesome legends. The chapel and well are reached by a footpath leading east from the B3192 which runs along the crest of Little Haldon Hill between Telegraph Hill and Teignmouth. The path drops steeply into a coombe where the chapel may be seen in the trees, surrounded by iron railings. The walls of the chapel survive up to the eaves, but it somehow lacks the atmosphere of other ruins where a lot less survives. Just to the north is a narrow gully. The spring at its head is all that remains of the holy well. There has probably been headward erosion of the spring, and the water originally welled up next to the chapel (in dry periods the gully can be dry for a considerable distance below the chapel).
Many stories are told about a monk who lived at the chapel and used to lure passing travellers into the chapel. Once there he would rob and murder them, disposing of the bodies in the well (rather a strange arrangement if the well was used for drinking water!) The chapel became newsworthy in the late 1970s when a Bristol photographer who took a picture of the chapel found that the developed print revealed a fully formed chapel instead of the remains.
- Exeter (Heavitree), Parker’s Well (SX 928 917)
This well, now little more than a semi-circular headed niche of stone over a receptacle for dead leaves and litter, may be found in a wall a short way up Madford Lane, near its junction with Topsham Road. The water from the well was said to possess medicinal properties especially for eye complaints and was resorted to well into the 19th century. Now, alas, the water has been diverted.
- Exeter, St Sidwell’s holy well (circa SX 926 934)
To the north east of Exeter High Street, beyond the line of the city walls, is the suburb of St Sidwell’s. Along the flank of the ridge below Sidwell Street are numerous springs of pure water which have been of great importance to the history of the area. At least three have been given saintly dedications in the past. Over the years the wells have been re-dug, built over and diverted so that today identification can be difficult.
The well which gave its name to the area is named after a saintly maiden who was murdered with a scythe, commemorated in the dedication of the nearby church and featured in an impressive fibreglass sculpture on the front of the Tesco store in Sidwell Street. The site of this well – which reputedly began to flow where the saint’s head fell – is behind number 3 York Cottages, near the junction of York Road and Oxford Street. The well was sealed off in the 1870s, by which time it was known, rather confusingly, as Captain Cook’s Well (after a local constable, not the famous seafarer). It was once covered by a beehive shaped stone structure of Heavitree stone – as depicted in the cathedral window of the saint and on a 16th century map of the area. Its water was valued for skin and eye complaints.
- Exeter (St Sidwell’s), St Anne’s or St Agnes’ Well
This well was situated slightly further North-east, approximately 150 yards north-west of the chapel dedicated to St Anne at the far end of Sidwell Street. A chapel and hermitage (later almshouses) have stood at the fork at the end of Sidwell Street from early medieval times: the chapel is known to have been rebuilt in 1418, and restored after Civil War damage and again in 1907-10. The site of the well is under the house next to the newsagent in Well Street. The well came to light in the 1920s when it caused subsidence of the house above. Earlier, in 1785, the wall, which supplied the city cistern at the time, became blocked. Intriguingly, the blockage was found to be caused by a mutton bone – a fascinating coincidence if the original dedication was to St Agnes (symbol – a lamb). During repairs at this tine, an extensive stone arched drain was discovered leading to a perforated stone which filtered the water. Water from this well was piped to the brewery near the Iron Bridge in Exeter, which became known as St Anne’s brewery.
- Exeter (St Sidwell’s), Cathedral Well
The third well in the neighbourhood worthy of comment, which it should be noted is, despite its name, nowhere near the Cathedral! This well supplied the cathedral community by way of a conduit, since earliest times. It was disturbed by the building of a cutting for the London and South Western Railway in 1857. The water supply was diverted and the well-building re-erected by the side of the steps leading down to St James’ Halt station, where it can be seen today with its entrance bricked up. Water still emerges by the side of the railway track and trickles away along a ditch – all rather pitiful.
Another ancient well was disturbed on the opposite side of the cutting. Other named wells in the vicinity include Cake Well, Padwell, and St Catherine’s Well – the site of the latter being under the car park at the bottom of Paris Street.
- Hartland, St Clare’s or St Cleer’s Well (SS 258 225)
A small, overgrown arched structure, complete with a small tree growing out of its roof, and a wooden board over its entrance, in a very muddy field in the hamlet of Philham, to the south of Hartland village. I have been unable to find out much about its history – save that an adjacent chapel once existed, and the almost inevitable assurances from elderly local inhabitants as to the great purity of the well’s water.
- Hartland, St Nectan’s Well (SS 236 248)
A hundred yards east of the splendid parish church in Hartland churchtown an overgrown lane leads down to this substantial building. Legend states that St Nectan landed at Padstow, in Cornwall, from Wales, and travelling north through Devon was set upon by bandits. He was violently beheaded by the robbers, but miraculously picked up his head and carried it to this spot, and gave both the well and the church their dedication (an interesting variation on the frequently occurring legends of wells springing up where saints’ heads fell – c.f. St Sidwell, Exeter). The church is one of the most impressive in Devon, and the well, despite some rather hasty re-pointing, is quite imposing and still contains running water. A new door and door-frame have recently been fitted.
- Hatherleigh, St John’s Well (SS 236 248)
A small, rather quaint, baptismal well, high on Hatherleigh Moor to the east of the village, commanding wide views. Constructed of brick, with a stone roof and a green door. The well still issues forth a copious flow of water – which on my visit was flooding the hollow in which it stands. The well can be approached from the road to Monkokehampton, through a gate near the hilltop monument.
The dedication of the well is to St John the Baptist. In her study of ‘Holy and notable wells of Devon’, Theo Brown noted that this was the most common dedication for holy wells in the county with the exception of those devoted to St Mary or Our Lady. She had recorded eight examples.
- Hatherleigh, St Mary’s Well (SS 522 058)
To the west of Hatherleigh village, more remote and considerably more ruinous than St John’s Well is St Mary’s. Situated in the corner of Bembridge Woods above the River Torridge, and approached along the edge of the woods from the back road to Sheepwash. Although very overgrown, a distinct spring emerges here in a fern-lined hollow, and the remains of a stone building survive around it. On my visit a large branch had fallen across the well – this I removed and attempted to clear out the well of other debris. The well was resorted to, especially on Ascension Day, and pins were thrown in.
- Kenton, Prophet’s Well (SX 934 828)
A spring in the grounds of Oxton House (private) which is said never to freeze over, even in the hardest winter. It was credited as a healing well, known especially for ague, though it is little known or visited today.
- Okehampton, Fitz’s Well (SX 592 938)
Situated on the windblown edge of North Dartmoor high above Okehampton, and overlooking the outstanding moorland fringe landscape currently being desecrated by the planning disaster of the decade – the Okehampton bypass. The site itself consists of an old granite cross adjacent to a small water-filled hollow, across which are placed granite gate-posts to prevent cattle falling in the well. It used to be visited on Easter morning by youths and maidens, and was known for eye cures. A similar legend is attached to this well as Fice’s Well, Princetown (q.v.) concerning a couple who lost their way on the moor only recovering it again on reaching, and drinking from, the well. Tradition, and the well’s name, associate this legend with the Fitz family who had a manor at nearby Meldon (but see also Princetown).
- Maristow (SX 473 646)
A large well in a bank near Maristow House overlooking the River Tavy, north of Plymouth. The house was badly damaged by fire in the late 1970s and there are doubts whether the well is anything other than an old supply for the house, but it is quite imposing nevertheless.
- Pilton, Holy or Lady Well (SS 557 341)
Known variously as Holywell or Ladywell, this well is situated in the north-west corner of the churchyard of this ancient parish, now subsumed into Barnstaple. The well consists of an arched recess in the wall, containing water diverted from a nearby spring. There is a plastered-up niche above the well. All the signs of a pre-Christian sacred well adapted for Christian use.
- Princetown, Fice’s Well (SX 578 759)
Situated on private, prison property to the north of the B3357 near Rundlestone, in the heart of Dartmoor. A simple well cover built of large granite boulders over a spring of clear water. The building measures about 4 feet in length and is just over 3 feet high. On the front part of the cover is a sunken panel carved with the letters ‘I.F.’ and the date 1568. A protective circular wall with 3 external and 5 internal steps was built around the well when New Forest Intake was enclosed as part of the convict prison farm.
The generally accepted origin of the well is that it was a token of the gratitude of John Fitz (locally ‘Fice’) of Fitzford near Tavistock, and his lady, who having lost their way on the moor, drank at the well and at once rediscovered their path. Traditionally they had been ‘pixie-led’ and only the water of certain springs can break the spell cast by mischievous elves. It is intriguing how the story and name of this well has also attached itself to the well above Okehampton (q.v.) – even more so that different, documented Fitz families are involved in each case. To add to the confusion, this well is listed twice in Hope’s 19th century survey of holy wells – once under ‘Fitz’s well’ and again under ‘Dartmoor’!
The well was held to have a curative effect on eye complaints and there are stories of an old man who came a considerable distance annually and carried away as much of the water as his strength would allow.
(Another well building was erected by John Fitz at Boughthayes near Tavistock, which was reported to be dry and dilapidated in 1973 – I have yet to locate this well).
- Sampford Courtney, Parish Well (SS 633 013)
Although known only as ‘Parish Well’, it is situated below the parish church and likely to be of great antiquity. Found by following the ‘water path’ between the Church House and the Glebe House, which takes one round the back of the churchyard. A spring issues from the tumbledown remains of a granite structure.
On the southern edge of the village, at SS 634 008, are the remains of ‘Clear Spring’, the ancient source of water for the New Inn and the lower part of the village. The water was once piped to the granite trough still to be seen opposite the inn on the B3216.
- Shobrooke, Holy Well (SS 863 013)
A small stone building at the side of the lane leading north from the church in the small village of Shobrooke near Crediton. The well was recorded in registers in 1576 – ‘Paid for making clene of the well and pavyne. . .xxd’ – and thoroughly restored in 1925. Today the door is kept locked but the building is in good repair.
- Sticklepath, Lady Well (SX 639 941)
This must be the easiest well in Devon to find, being situated next to the old A30 trunk road in the village of Sticklepath. A small pipe issues water into a small stone-lined trough, and an the inscription reads ‘Lady Well. Drink and be thankful.’ On the many occasions I have passed the well I have yet to see it dry.
- Tavistock, St John’s Well (SX 478 739)
Situated in the riverside park towards the west of the town, overlooking the river Tavy, and easily accessible. An elegant carved granite canopy is built into the hillside over this natural spring. A paved path leads up to the well – just in front of which is a rather tastelessly sited inspection cover. Numerous local enquiries revealed little about this well, though it seems likely to be connected with the once-prosperous abbey of Tavistock, remains of which are to be seen nearby.
- Tawstock, Holy Well (SS 553 298)
A large well situated next to the village school in this village near Barnstaple, and well looked after. On my first visit in 1983 a very large crack existed right across the well building suggesting considerable subsidence, but since then this has been repaired. The well is dated 1390, although the present building looks considerably later than this. A carved cross surmounts the building and a new wooden grill has been placed over the doorway. A plaque over the door records the well’s restoration early this century. The guidebook to the outstanding parish church states rather vaguely – ‘Tawstock’s holy well is thought to be 2000 years old…’ implying great antiquity, but giving no further information.
- Totnes, Harper’s Well (SX 798 603)
Recorded as ‘Harperyswill’ and as supplying the castle moat in 1471. Regarded as a curative well. Water still flows in the conduit at the bottom of Harper’s Hill just across the busy A381, Western Way, at the top of the town.
- Totnes, Leechwell (SX 801 603)
Hidden away down a narrow alley called Leechwell Lane which leads off South Street at the top of the town. A large walled enclosure with two recesses into the bank, granite troughs and copious water are to be found here. This is one of the oldest water supplies for the town. It is sometimes known as Leper’s Well after a nearby medieval leper hospital and chapel.
- Welcombe, Holy Well (SS 228 184)
A remote and beautiful place – Welcombe is a hilly and windswept parish on the coast near the border with Cornwall in north-west Devon. The small churchtown contains a few cottages, an attractive stone church and, across the road, a stone well building over a natural spring. The well is sometimes known as ‘St Nectan ‘s’ as well as ‘Holy Well’, and has given its name to the village. There are no records of it being curative, merely very pure.
- Widecombe, Saxon Well (SX 718 768)
One of the most picturesque wells in Devon, even if its antiquity is disputed. Located downhill from the centre of the village, just below the post office (and occasionally hidden by a parked car) this charming little well is known variously as ‘Holy’, ‘Wishing’ and most commonly ‘Saxon Well’ – implying considerable antiquity. The water is reputed to have never run dry and was noted for eyes. More recently pennies have been thrown in. It is possible, however, that the well may only have ‘gained’ its age and virtues when the village started to become a major tourist attraction (Widecombe Fair, Uncle Tom Cobbley, etc.). Nevertheless, it is considerably more attractive than many of Widecombe’s other modern ‘attractions”.
- Woodbury Common, Soldier’s Well (SX 032 876)
Just below the escarpment, near Woodbury Castle Iron Age hillfort. Today a marshy hollow under a tree, but possibly of great age, and given its name probably connected with the hillfort.
- Woodbury Common, Golden Well (SX 032 849)
Given its name, rather a disappointment. Another marshy hollow, just to the south of the road over Lympstone Common, on the parish boundary of East Budleigh and Withycombe Raleigh.
- Woodbury Common, St Jacob’s Well (circa SX 0285)
Recorded as a wishing well in 1938 and as being a hole in the bog below Black Hill. Unvisited.
- Woodbury Salterton (SX 013 890)
An intriguing structure in the centre of the village by the roadside. The well (now dry) is reached down some steps. Over it is a square edifice, with a curved roof with a peculiar carved stone on its apex. A carved stone trefoil arch with hood-moulding stand over a curved iron pipe emerging from the building at the bottom of the steps. Unfortunately this is now a receptacle for village litter and dead leaves. Above the arch is an inscription taken from Revelations, 22:17 –
And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.
The whole has the air of the work of a philanthropic Victorian squire, but forms a very attractive village feature.
Brown, T., (1957); ‘Holy and Notable Wells of Devon’, Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol. 89.
Chard, J., (1978); Along the Lemon. Bossiney Books.
Crossing, W., (1909); Guide to Dartmoor. (numerous reprints by David & Charles).
Ellacott, S. E.; Braunton. Quest Publications.
Harvey, H., (1986); Discovering Exeter: Sidwell Street. Exeter Civic Society.
Hemery, E., (1983); High Dartmoor. Robert Hale.
Hope, R. C., (1893); The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England. Elliot Stock.
plus various church guidebooks of the appropriate parishes.
Text & Illustrations © Laurence Hunt (1989)
Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 23/12/99