The Rediscovery of a Holy Well near Malton, North Yorkshire

by Ian Taylor

The entry on page 6 of Source (First Series) Issue 3 refering to the Holy Well, Appleton-le-Street, near Malton, is slightly inaccurate. This site has now been investigated by my wife and I, with Edna Whelan, and should read Holy Well, Hildenley, near Malton. The original map reference is correct.

The information given in Edna’s states that the site was much resorted to by the monks of Kirkham Abbey’ (so says Mrs Gutch, quoting Whellan, Vol. II, p60). There have indeed been examples of pagan holy wells being associated with members of the Church, but if discovered this was strenuously prohibited. Maybe the Austin friars from Kirkham Priory did visit the Hildenley Well four miles away, as they doubtless knew of and visited many places in the area which still held, in the 12th and 13th centuries, pagan associations among the local people. Why should this particular connection be emphasized? Perhaps, I mused, the well is on a ley or sacred alignment from Kirkham Priory? A check on the l:25,000 Ordnance Survey map suggested this almost certainly the case and, a few days later, the ley was walked and confirmed with five major and as many minor points in alignment within four miles, terminating at the site of a ploughed out tumulus.

The holy well is shown on the map. We discovered it by the side of a wide track on the South West edge of Hildenley Wood. A stone-lined tunnel, or conduit, conveyed the water into a large stone trough and it seemed still to be ‘a copious and pure spring’, although somewhat grown in by young sycamores. The ley ran a few yards west of the well. As we were contemplating the tranquil and undisturbed nature of the site, a rider from the nearby Stud Farm passed along the track and asked us if we had seen ‘the other well’ . He pointed among the trees and went on his way.

     There was no path near this one, but we found it deep in a tangle of trees and fallen branches. A beautifully constructed well house greeted us, with carved foliage above the entrance (see drawing above). The deep water inside unfortunately contained quite a lot of rubbish and the well house door had been taken off and flung aside. Someone had been using the place as a dump for refuse – bottles, cans and buckets lay among the year’s depth of fallen leaves at the entrance. We tidied the place up a little and stripped off the ivy from the front of the well house, exposing more carved foliage. There was also the remains of an old wall on three sides of the well house. This well was not on the O.S. map! But it was a much grander affair than the one on the track, which is marked.

Why should there be two obviously important holy wells so close together, and showing only recent signs of neglect? It looked to us as though the surrounding woodland had only begun to take over each site within the last thirty years or so. Habitations are few in the area: a scattering of farms and cottages. We felt that both wells, the more secret and hidden one as well as the holy well, had been ‘tended’ and cared for until not very long ago. I shall be bearing this in mind when I begin work on the mysteries of Ryedale (which includes the parish of Hildenley) next spring and summer.

One final point; at the time of writing, a York firm of architects is compiling information for the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission on possible sites for future Listing in the Ryedale area. We have recommended to them that the two wells at Hildenley are included. We are presently awaiting their reply.


Text & Illustrations © Ian Taylor (1986)

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