The Conisbrough Holy Well, Doncaster
by Simon Clark
Rising up above the small town of Conisbrough, near Doncaster, South Yorkshire, whose name derives from King’s Fort, the 12th century castle stands on a hill, like a wedding cake. Battered and crumbling, bleached to a pale yellow, it is still impressive, contrasting sharply with its green hill and dark, encircling tide of urban development.
The castle, constructed of magnesium limestone, can be reached by road up through rows of Coronation Street-type terraced houses, complete with corner shops and the odd 1970s supermarket. It is upon passing along Wellgate, a 1960s development of three-storey council flats, that the alert visitor will spot an insignificant structure easily overlooked amid the asphalt courtyards, bus shelters, graffiti and forty feet high buildings. Situated between pavement and road, the low structure is of magnesium limestone, the same fabric as the castle. This is Conisbrough’s holy well. It has been added to over the centuries, it is not possible to date it accurately, but an arrangement of large stones at the bottom suggests an ancient construction, possibly prior to the erection of the castle itself.
Legend has it that the area was in the grip of great drought: wells and streams dried. Then as a slow and painful death faced the parched villagers a holy man appeared, cut a willow wand from a copse nearby known as Willow Vale, and led the villagers singing hymns uphill, through the grounds of the priory, to the place which would become known as Wellgate. There the holy man struck the ground. Instantly, fresh water burst from the earth to shower the arid soil. The well sustained the people of Conisbrough until the village became a town, and when in 1903 water mains were laid the well was at last sealed.
The legend suggests the holy man may have been, in fact, some Pagan priest and that the legend was a legacy of Conisbrough’s pre-Christian past; certainly the reference to a willow indicates a water diviner.
In many minds, the holy well is a vessel of Arcanum, usually set deep within the folds of some misty glade. The gritty urban setting of this well is certainly unusual but, somehow, not entirely incongruous. Holy wells usually fall into two categories: the first is well maintained, perhaps even still revered as a holy place; the second is the well falling – or fallen – into ruin. Conisbrough’s well is another category somewhere between the two. It is maintained by Doncaster Borough Council in the sane way as any of its municipal structures’ walls are pointed, occasionally rubbish is cleared from it. But it is favoured no better than the bus shelter down the street. Kids climb over, and write on, both of them. Like the functional bus shelter it is completely without mystique. But, perhaps uniquely among holy wells, it has undergone a non-miraculous transformation, retaining its utilitarian value: to children, it’s anything they want it to be, castle, USS Enterprise, battleship; it is a place to lean against for courting couples; a blackboard for Conisbrough youth. This holy well is prosaic. Picturesque prettiness is completely absent. Tragic? It depends on your point of view. The well is not revered, but neither is it forgotten. It is a single thread like the bus shelter, the supermarket, the terraced houses, the job centre and the numerous other threads that constitute the fabric of Conisbrough.
Text © Simon Clark (1986)
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