The Holy Wells of Leicestershire and Rutland
by Clive Potter
Although the counties of Leicestershire and Rutland possess few wells with notable legends and traditions associated with them, there do exist a reasonable number of holy wells which have particular healing properties attached, probably due to the chalybeate – or iron-bearing nature of the waters.
One of the most interesting of the legend bearing wells lies in the north of Leicestershire, in the region of upland granite rocks known as Charnwood Forest. The Holy Well Haw has a unique legend associated with it, similar in some respects to the Running Well of Essex. Situated at Holywell Hall near Loughborough, the well has a long legend in the form of a poem (illustrated) which tells of the safe rescue of a lady by a hermit at the holy well. The lady, from Groby Castle, was travelling to Grace Dieu Priory but got lost in the forests, and was almost kidnapped by the Comyns family of Whitwick, who, because of their size, were regarded in legend as giants. The tradition may have arisen from Douglas’s kidnapping of Eleanor Ferrars. but there is the possibility that some esoteric meaning lies behind the legend. Holy Well Haw, incidentally, means ‘an enclosure around the holy well’ and suggests that some form of worship, pilgrimage, and/or a building, once existed at the site.
Rutland has its own important well site, that at Ryhall where a spring has a dual dedication to St Tibba and St Eabba. This site consists of a well and a shrine on a hill. The spring has given rise to the name of the hill – Tibb’s-well-hill. Close to the spring is an area of ground known as Halegreen where anniversary celebrations were held on December 16th in honour of St Tibba – an obscure saint. ‘Hale’ incidentally was the Saxon name given to rites practised in fields in honour of saints.
Within the city of Leicester there are a couple of springs which have dedications which can be attributed to some unique status they once enjoyed. St James’ Well lay close to the chapel of St Sepulchre, itself associated with St James’ chapel. The area is now covered by the Royal Infirmary and the well once stood at the corner of Infirmary Square.
The association of Christian buildings and springs is again repeated in Leicester where the churches of St Martin’s and St Margaret’s both have wells, the former at the end of the church wall and the latter beneath the church tower. Again, a complex of springs known as the Merrie wells lie in the grounds enclosed by Leicester Abbey, itself dedicated to St Mary.
Within the county this association also occurs at Claybrook, close to the border with Warwickshire. Here lies a medicinal well called ‘Cawdel-well’ as well as ‘Chapel-well’. There is a tradition that a chapel stood nearby, but no chapel is mentioned in the matriculus of 1226. This may, however, have overlooked a lesser foundation which may not have been considered significant enough to record.
At Papillon Hall, near Lubenham, close to the border with Northamptonshire, lies St Mary’s Well, a few yards from the River Welland. The site was once a Lazars house associated with Leicester Abbey and the waters, being iron-bearing, were therefore considered therapeutic. Papillon Hall once stood on the site, until being demolished in 1950, and it was this place where a strange man, David Papillon, (1691- 1762) lived, who was reputed to have hypnotic powers, and who cast an apparent malevolent force around the hall. ‘Old Parry’ as he was known to the locals, claimed to have a magical well, formerly belonging to the Lazars house, and known as the ‘Everlasting Well’. It was supposed to possess great medicinal value. A stone cover bearing the Papillon coat of arms once existed over the well but a former owner took part of it away in 1908; misfortune followed and he was forced to return it.
The village of Burton Lazars gets its name from a Lazars hospice that once existed on high ground west of the settlement. Here Roger de Mowbray founded a leper hospital in 1135 and baths were created over the medicinal springs there. Although they were of high repute they fell into disuse until 1760 when the spring was revived and a spa built. Many cures were claimed to have been affected. Close to the road south of Burton Lazarus is another well, this time consisting of a brick-sided pond.
In the nineteenth century, the town of Hinckley, in the west of the county, was once highly-reputed for its waters, recommended by Dr Mervyn Patterson in A Medical Guide to Hinckley Mineral Springs and Baths (1846), who said that ‘The Ancient Royal Town of Hinckley has long been famed for its pure springs, amongst which we may mention “Cogg’s Well”, “Christopher Spa”, “Priests’ Well” and “Holy Well”‘. Only two of these can now be found, including Cogg’s Well at Park Farm, near Forest View, which was reputed to have petrifying properties. The Holy Well lay at the top of Burbage Road near the junction of Spa Lane. A large conical brick pump stood on the site until c.1800. A local pub now bears the name ‘The Holy Well Inn’ and may have actually obtained its water for its ale from the well! Close by, at the village of Sketchley, lies Sketchley Well, which once had the legendary reputation of sharpening people’s wits. An old saying once said that dim people ought to ‘go to Sketchley’.
In the parish of Sapcote, between Hinckley and Leicester, lies the Golden Well, located at Bath House on Bath Street. The name probably derives from the high sulphur content of the waters which have coloured the stones over which it flows. The waters of the spring are slightly chalybeate and it was once held in high repute as being ‘particularly serviceable in nervous, consumptive, scorbutic and scrofulous complaints’. It is stated that ‘many that were afflicted with weak and sore eyes have found considerable relief and some a perfect cure’. The well is still regarded as ‘good for rheumatism’. In 1806 John Turner created a bath house over the well, and in 1927 it was recorded as still in existence.
Also in Sapcote is the Soap (or Sope) Well where the Rev. Henry Whitely in History of the Parish of Sapcote (1853) said; ‘There is, a little way out of the village, a well which was formerly famed, called Soap-well, of remarkable soft water. Tradition said that the water would wash without soap, hence the name of the well. It is now disused…’
In the same general area in the west of the county is Barwell Spring, a possible contender for the origin of the village of Barwell. This spring is situated in High Close, east of the church. Although no traditions are recorded from it much remains of early activity occur around the spring, from the early Bronze Age to the Medieval period. Close by is Shearsby Well, located in a hollow and mentioned by the Leicestershire 18th century historian, John Nichols. This was converted into a spa and became renowned as a famous salt spring.
Three further springs in the same region occur around Lutterworth and Bitteswell. At the former there was a spring which is referred to as having the property of ‘turning sticks into stones’, no doubt referring to the high-salted waters. Also there is St John’s well, another petrifying spring, with the further reputed quality of being very cold. Finally, on the road to Lutterworth is a holy well, originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Our Lady’s Well). This was, however, dissipated as a result of digging for gravel, but a new well was later opened up, on the opposite side of the road, a brick pillar being set up with the words ‘rebuilt 1757’ inscribed upon it.
Only brief mention is made of three further springs, one at Great Bradley in the east of the county, called Our Lady’s well, which consists of a deep well walled beneath the surface. In the Charnwood area, at Garendon, lies Monk’s Well, close to Garendon Priory, whilst at Ashby, in the north-west there is mention of Lyon’s Well, Penny’s Well, and Holy Well.
Nichols mentions a spring near Gumley Hall which was regarded as being famous and mentioned in ‘old writings’. The waters are chalybeate.
At Ratby, to the west of Leicester, is a Holy Well close to the Iron Age earthworks there. This is said to have ‘never been known to freeze’, although the water is now piped into a pond in the grounds of Holy Well house. These waters gained notoriety in connection with the treatment of scorbutic diseases.
In the east of the county, close to Melton Mowbray, lies Holwell, the village name being derived from Holwell Mouth, one mile NNW. This is a chalybeate spring, which is the source of the River Smike. Originally there once existed a stone table and seats around the hollow for the use of invalids. There is a record that a ‘Dole’ building once existed in Holwell which was allowed 10 shillings a year in 1790.
This brief survey of holy wells and springs in Leicestershire and Rutland is intended only as a preliminary guide. No doubt further documentary and oral study will reveal a few more wells, whether extant or not. A field programme of individual examination will be necessary to find the exact location and condition of each well, and to allow possible local awareness and conservation. This is a long-term object, but we hope that individuals will survey and document their holy wells in their own regions too.
I am sure that further research will also bring to light more information on the traditions associated with each well, and it is suggested that researchers concentrate on local sources of oral knowledge, e.g. churchwardens/vicars, publicans, old folk. These are often the sole source of information regarding local legends and should be noted in all cases. New holy wells and other related sites might even be found as a result!