Some Wells in the South and West – 1
St Mary & the Holy Spirit’s/Leper’s Well, Lyme Regis, Dorset
(341 922 – O.S. Sheet 193)
Seen 1st April 1986.
Most people in Lyme Regis know where Lepers’ Well is, and it is marked on maps around the town. From the Museum, walk up Combe Road; on the left there will be a turning into a sort of yard from which there is a sign indicating a footpath. This runs by the side of the River Lim and eventually leads into a public garden, very beautifully set out with several levels and tiny bridges spanning the river. When visited it was full of sun and ducks! On the west side of the Lim, set back into a grassy bank, is the Well, a stately arch with green-edged stone benchings and a little recess in which is a small quantity of milky water which smells rather badly – or is that the effect of the sundry bits and pieces in the water?
Lepers’ Well stands on the site of the Chapel of St Mary and the Holy Spirit, and presumably this odd water was used to cure ‘lepers’ – leprosy being a blanket medieval term for many skin diseases. There is a plaque on the Well above the water telling of the hospital which stood on the spot 700 years ago. The town of Lyme dates back to Saxon times, when one of the Kings of Wessex granted land around to the Bishop of Sherborne.
Jeremy Harte, in Source 1 (First Series), refers to a ‘St Andrew’s Well, lying beside St Andrew’s Chapel in the town, and described as “one of the earliest and best sources of Lyme’s water supply”‘. The Tourist Information Office said there was no St Andrew’s Chapel in the town now; the Town Crier confirmed this; and the Reverend Dell, Vicar of St Michael’s, told us that there never has been, and the nearest such dedication is at Charmouth. This is a mystery that needs clearing up!
St Whyte’s Well, Morcombelake, Dorset (398 937 – O.S. Sheet 193)
Seen 1st April 1986.
At the extreme western end of the village of Morcombelake on the A35 road are a pair of sharp turnings adjacent to each other, leading south over the hills. Both will bring you to a little road running between farm buildings. Look out for an unobtrusive white-painted wooden sign pointing out the footpath to St Wite’s Well. Following this will lead you to a muddy track over the fields – be careful to close the gates! – and after about 300 yards is the Well (apparently National Trust, although I cannot be sure) fenced off in its own enclosure.
The Well of St Whyte is a little stone basin about l ft x l½ ft and full of water with a good colony of algae. A modern plaque proclaims the Well’s ability to cure eye diseases ‘at least since the 16th century’. The Bishop of Salisbury blessed the restored well on 24th July 1985 [Source 3 (First Series)].
St Whyte, Wite, Wita, Candida or Gwen is a controversial figure. D.H. Farmer (Oxford Dictionary of Saints) refers to three theories concerning her identity; 1) that she was a West Saxon of whom no other record survives, 2) that she was a Welsh Saint Gwen, whose relics were given by King Athelstan to this church, 3) that Whyte was a man, Albinus, Bishop of Buraburg, or a companion of St Boniface, martyred with him, and translated back to Wessex.
The Church of St Candida with Holy Cross, at nearby Whitchurch Canonicorum, houses the relics of a 40 year old woman, contained in a lead coffin. This shrine still attracts numerous written prayers and supplications for intercession. The local theory is that St Whyte was a female Saxon recluse who was martyred by the Danes after they landed at Charmouth in one of their regular invasions. This would seem to favour theory 1) above and to discount the others. The Well appears to have been a hermit’s well in the Cornish fashion. However, some of the elements of the legends indicate that some conflation of Whyte and Gwen has occurred (and therefore there is a link with the Great Goddess via Gwen) even though Saxon ‘Whyte’ and Welsh ‘Gwen’ mean entirely different things.
St Andrew’s Well, Bradpole, Dorset (477 939 – O.S. Sheet 193)
Seen 1st April 1986.
Take the A3066 which runs north from Bridport towards Beaminster. The spot is very difficult to see so as the river goes out of view keep your eyes peeled on the right of the road for a smart house called ‘the Well’; when we were there the place was selling budgies! A rough lane or path leads around the north of the house towards the premises of an engineering firm and the Well is in this lane; you may even walk over it without realising!
The gate of the house called ‘the Well’ depicts in iron a fine structure with roof and handle, but the real Well is nothing like this. In the lane, set into the ground, there are a number of iron slats covering a vigorous little spring which bubbles fresh, clear water; thankfully, one of the slats was missing or the water would have been inaccessible. It is a pity that such a site as this is so dilapidated.
The well’s location was revealed to us by an old gentleman living nearby – without his help we could not have found it. The only references I have found to it are in The History of Bradpole in the parish church, and in an article on ley lines (alignments of ancient, usually sacred sites) in The Unexplained magazine, by Anna Pavord. According to The History…, a chapel of St Andrew owned by the ‘Abbey of St Mary Montebourg’ is thought to have been nearby; it was Norman in style although a Decorated tracery-head survives in Bradpole Church. The Well presumably served the Chapel’s liturgical needs. The article in The Unexplained adds an interesting angle; apparently a great ley line begins at the West Bay lookout point, passes through the ‘Holy Well of St Andrew’s at Bridport’, two hilltops, two moats, a Saxon settlement, the sites of an abbey grange and a Roman building, a river crossing at Yeovil and five churches before terminating at Ansford Church, north of Castle Cary (Somerset). Interestingly, at Ansford there is another St Andrew’s Well which could rival Bradpole’s in terms of dilapidation. As Anna Pavord says, ‘Holy wells… are important’ ley markers, often indicating the starting points of leys’. The points on a map do not actually lie on a straight line, although they are sufficiently close for ley liners to claim they form a ‘geodetic corridor’.
The association of holy wells and ley lines may require investigation. Joan Rendall recognises the idea in Cornwall and speculates that the Celtic hermit saints exploited the Earth Power when choosing sites for their cells, as well as the consideration of water supply [Cornish Churches, Bossiney Books, 1982]. The noted dowser and archaeologist T.C. Lethbridge thought that such an Earth Power stored in stone circles and similar sites was used to cure diseases (a famous example would be Men-an-Tol holed stone, Cornwall) and if holy wells are closely allied with ley lines, this may possibly, if we allow ourselves a flight of mysticism, contribute to the healing properties, in addition to the more mundane mineral-content explanation.
Holy Well of Holwell, Dorset (699 121 – O.S. Sheet 194)
Seen 8th April, 1986.
Don’t get fooled, as I did, into thinking that the Holy Well of Holwell is at Holwell! The Holwell marked on the map is mostly modern; the old part of the village is that around the Church, called ‘the Borough’ on the O.S. map. From the 15th century Church of St Laurence, take the bridleway which runs north over a small bridge across the Caundle Brook and watch out on the left for a fenced-off pool of water in a field. This pool contains several pieces of flat stone around its edges which look like steps – 7 were discovered on excavation in 1968. ‘Into living memory the Well was used for baptisms and as a domestic water supply, also as an eye well’ [Janet & Colin Bord, Sacred Waters]. The water is as murky as one might expect.
A girl who directed us knew immediately what we were talking about when we mentioned ‘Holy Well’, although she did say that ‘it isn’t called the Holy Well anymore’.
St Mary’s Well, Hermitage, Dorset (651 068 – O.S. Sheet 194)
Seen 8th April, 1986.
The Church of St Mary lies at the extreme eastern end of the village. A footpath runs through the grounds of the house next door to the Church, leading over what must be the wettest fields in Dorset – nothing but clay – up to Prince’s Wood. The footpath leads to Lyon’s Gate; the best thing to do is to leave it at the edge of the wood and follow the trees until you come upon the Well, which is in fact marked on the O.S. map.
St Mary’s (Lady) Well is a small structure of red brick whose somewhat obtrusive colour has been covered by thick green moss; the entire thing is set into the ground, among the trees, as picturesque as you could wish, although the effect was somewhat spoiled by the presence of a blue plastic bowl full of the water! The well encloses a two-foot-square basin full of very clear water. The place gave the impression of being forgotten, isolated, lonely, and enjoying every minute of it.
Hermitage dates from a foundation in 1314 by Augustinian Friars. Edward II sponsored the foundation and granted more land in 1324, described as ‘a waste land in the forest’, i.e. the Forest of Blackmoor. However, the friars had left by 1460 and the parish was then made a curacy. It is now one of the five parishes of the High Stoy Group.
St John’s Well, Evershot, Dorset (573 046 – O.S. Sheet 194)
Jeremy Harte, in Source 1 (First Series), refers to a crossroads called Holywell after a well dedicated to St John. The village of Holywell is on the A37 from Yeovil to Dorchester. However, St John’s Well is in the village of Evershot itself. The Church Guide of St Osmund’s, the parish church, states that the Well is ‘200 yards to the north of and below-the church’. This spot is a little enclosure over a hedge on the right side of a road called Back Lane which leads north from the church. The spring is said to be the source of the River Frome.
Bridewell, Steeple, Purbeck, Dorset (912 811 – O.S. Sheet 195)
Seen 29th December, 1985.
Steeple is a hamlet nestled between two hills; to get to it, either approach from Corfe Castle via Church Knowle or from Wareham take the right fork at Stoborough and continue past Creech Grange and up onto the Purbeck Hills, finally taking the road which almost bends back on itself to Church Knowle. In the hamlet there is a large and lively house dating from the 17th century, and in its grounds is a pond fed by a spring, from which the water pours into a tiny pipe and then falls, I think, into a nearby stream which feeds the River Corfe. The pond is overgrown and the water is dirty and muddy. The housekeeper told me that this was probably ‘Bridewell’ and there is no other such spring in the area. The house is on the right of the road as you come up from the Church of St Michael, which stands on a knoll above the rest of the hamlet.
St Eustace’s Well, Ibberton, Dorset
Seen Summer 1985.
Hope says this well was on the north side of the churchyard, springing from a rock. After searching long and hard for the rock or even a featureless spring, we were prepared to give up, especially as the church guide makes no mention of a well. However, just as we were leaving the village, we met a local lady from whom we learned the following;
Stashey’s Well, as it was known, was, around 1905, channelled and covered to feed the reservoir at Sturminster Newton. The actual spring is now on private land; the overflow runs down a gully at the side of the road next to the Crown Inn, but I was dissuaded from taking some water from here; it is after all much sullied by cows’ manure and other things! This information is in contrast with Jeremy Harte’s note that the well is now a ‘damp patch of nettles’.
Ibberton lies at the bottom of an incredibly steep hill and this may be one example of a well becoming holy simply as an important source of water. The lady we spoke to said that many villagers who live on the hill slopes still use the chalk springs as their main water supply.
All Hallows’ Well, Wareham, Dorset
This has probably vanished. It was beside All Hallows’ Chapel, at the junction of the High Street and Cow Lane. The site is now occupied by the Alliance & Leicester Building Society office.
Text & Illustrations © James Rattue (1986)
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