The Holy Well at St. John the Baptist Church, Holywell Cum Needingworth, Cambridgeshire
by Revd. Joe Wilcox
The Holy Well is probably the oldest landmark in the village, certainly pre-Christian and very likely gave its name to the village. It stands on the South East side of the churchyard and within its curtilage. This ancient spring was embellished with a brick cover, not unlike a Victorian ladies bonnet in shape. The Rector, the Reverend S. Beckwith, undertook the project in 1846 to make a feature of this ancient site. The well has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries, going back to St Ivo, a Persian Bishop of the 7th century, after whom the nearby town of St Ives is named. Roman pottery and coins, now in the Norris Museum and Library, were found in the churchyard and rectory grounds.
Like many other Holy Wells and Springs, this at Holywell has a reputation for its healing properties. The water is used externally. The brick well cover suffered through the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease. Three mature trees which grew alongside the well died. The roots had penetrated the brick foundations and the whole structure was rapidly becoming unsafe.
A programme of restoration and landscaping was undertaken by the Parochial Church Council. Volunteers removed the dead elms and prepared the site and surrounding area. Further assistance was given by ‘Compass’ – Manpower Services Commission – for this community project. A template of the arch and measurements of the structure were carefully recorded and photographs taken. The Parochial Church Council supplied all the materials, including a special mortar, and a mixer.
On close inspection, the foundations and walls were in a very bad state. No repairs were possible without taking the structure down to the level of the 13th century stone ring. Care was taken to recover as many of the old bricks as possible. We were fortunate in finding a sympathetic local builder, who gave us enough matching old bricks to make a good restoration. The water had to be diverted during the work operations.
In order to prevent further troubles from other trees nearby, an area around the well was cleared, giving four feet clearance. Retaining walls were built to hold the rising ground, using old facing bricks backed with engineering bricks. Broken recovered slabs of stone came in useful to make an attractive crazy paved path around the base of the well.
The Parish Council supplied the timber for a new fence on the southern side of the well which was necessary for safety. A gate has been provided to give access to the water outlet and to the old watercress bed. More work will be done by volunteers in the Spring to improve this area with stone steps, stepping stones and further planting of suitable subjects. A generous supporter has donated four Golden Weeping Willows and these have already been planted.
The approach to the well from the East gate of the churchyard is down a steep slope and the area is shaped rather like a small amphitheatre. The Cub Scouts, under supervision, assisted other volunteers in planting 700 to 800 Spring flowering bulbs which included snowdrops muscari, daffodils, narcissi, crocus, tulips and bluebells. Evergreen shrubs, which will give colour during the winter months, were also donated and planted, and the following subjects were included; eleagnus, pieris, mahonia, euonymus and pyracantha, the latter to screen the new fencing. The area is attracting more birds. During the Winter the water continues to flow freely. Frogs have returned after a long period of absence.
During recent years we have introduced Well Dressing. The Village Horticultural Society have taken a great interest in this. Their members provide the design and grow the various plants, flowers and shrubs needed to execute the project. The design results in a most beautiful coloured mosaic made-up of approximately a quarter of a million separate flower petals, leaves and parts of pine and alder cones, which are individually pressed into prepared clay bed panels, before being finally erected in front of the Holy Well.
It has become a feature of our Patronal Festival – St John the Baptist, 24th June – when the Bishop of Ely or Huntingdon, join us for a service of Blessing of the Well and the Church Flower Festival. The display lasts for about ten days and each year we have an increasingly large number of people descending upon us. It is our hope that our display of Spring flowers will encourage a second visit to this beautiful old world ring village.
Some Summer visitors can often be found meditating in the quiet of this place. Others rest upon the bank and just take in the beauty of the scene and there are still to be found those who throw a coin into the well and make a wish.
It was not until the 1940s when a piped water supply cane to the village. Until that time the well was used for domestic purposes and Holy Baptism.
How to Get There
Holywell village lies South of the A1123 St Ives to Earith road. It is signposted in Needingworth, being about 1 mile off the main road.