St Helen’s Well, Stainland

by Mike Haigh

Stainland is a typical Pennine village situated on a flat-topped spur of land about 2 miles South of Halifax. St Helen’s Well is situated at the eastern end of the village. The earliest account of the holy well is in Watson’s monumental The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Halifax, (1775). Unfortunately he gives no description of the well but he does say there used to be a Roman Catholic chapel, also dedicated to St Helen, nearby. By Watson’s time it had been converted into a cottage, but in its walls was a large stone known locally as ‘the Cross’. Strangers, presemed to be Catholics, were still making pilgrimages to the well then. Watson also says he possessed a deed which mentions a grant made to one Henry de Sacro Fonte de Staynland. the approximate date of which was between 1279 and 1324.

The well was restored in 1843, probably in response to an upsurge of interest in the drinking of ‘spa’ waters. The Halifax Guardian for September 1842 carries a description of the scene around the Well Head spa in Halifax where crowds carrying drinking utensils jostled each other in their eagerness to take the waters before hurrying home for breakfast. Well Head was the most popular of the Halifax spas but several other springs in the area were frequented. Similar scenes may have occurred around Stainland’s more venerable well.

A woodcut of the late 19th century (see Source (First Series) Issue 3) shows the well slipping into graceful decline. The stone trough had cracked and was leaking but wild flowers grew in profusion around the well, and beyond magnificent views were to be had of the rolling Pennines. I often think that holy wells are at their best like this, as man’s vain attempts to control the water crumble into dust and Nature reclaims her own.

Today local placenames reflect the past importance of the well. The eastern end of the village is known as Holywell Green, there is a pub called ‘The Holy Well’ and a St Helen’s Court. The well was further restored in 1977 but a visit today is disappointing. The glorious views of distant hills are blocked by a recent estate of bungalows. Worst still, although the crumbling trough of the woodcut has been replaced by a solid modern one, no water percolates into it. I suspect the water supply was altered by the recent building work. It’s a pity to end on such a negative note but, I suppose, there is always hope. Perhaps the water still trickles through the cracks and fissures under the village and maybe someday water will flow again.


Text © Mike Haigh (1985)

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