A cursory check of the internet will show the perceived view of rag wells – most commonly called – clootie wells are that they are a Celtic pagan as summed up by the 21st century source of all information it seems Wikipedia:
“Clootie wells (also Cloutie or Cloughtie wells) are places of pilgrimage in Celtic areas.”
The online article goes on to list three sites in Scotland, Cornwall and Ireland – to emphasise this! However, the earliest recorded site is not only in England, but a fair distance from traditional Celtic homelands being on the north east in Yorkshire!
It is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner earliest reference is made to an association with a well. It describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that:
“they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts”.
Francis Grose in his 1773 The Antiquities of England and Wales also records that:
“Between the towns of Alten and Newton near the foot of Roseberrye Toppinge there is a well dedicated to St Oswald. The neighbours have an opinion that a shirt or shift taken off a sick person and thrown into that well, will show whether that person will recover or die; for if it floated it denoted the recovery of the party; if it sunk, there remained no hope of their life: and to reward the saint for his intelligence , they tear off a rag off the shirt and leave it hanging on the briars thereabouts: where I have seen such numbers as might have made a fayre rhime in a paper mill.”
However by Rev. John Graves 1808’s The History of Cleveland all mention of hanging rags appears forgotten or not known by the author who states that:
“Within the parish, at the northern extremity of Cliffrigg-Wood, and about two hundred paces to the eastward from Langbargh-Quarry, there is a copious spring of clear water, called Chapel-Well, which had formerly a bath &c. and was, till of late years, much resorted on the Sundays in the summer months by the youth of the neighbouring villages, who assembled to drink the simple beverage, and to join in a variety of rural diversions. But the harmlessness of this innocent recreation was at length destroyed by Spiritous liquors, furnished by the village-innkeepers: when the custom became discountenanced, and was soon after discontinued”
Yet when the Rev. George Young in his 1817 History of Whitby he does refer to the festivities but mentions the rags suggesting the custom was still concurrent:
“At the north end of Cliffrigg Wood, a little to the east of Langbargh quarry, is a copious spring, once the resort of superstition. It was supposed that when a shirt or shift was taken from a sick person and thrown into this well, the person would recover if it floated, but would die if it sunk. A rag of the shirt was torn off and hung on the bushes, as an offering to St Oswald, to whom the well was dedicated; and so numerous were the devotees, that, as an ancient writer states, the quantity of rags, suspended around the well, might have furnished material for a ream of paper. It is called Chapel Well, having once had a chapel, or cell, beside it, with a bath and other conveniences. As superstition is the handmaid of impiety, it is not surprising to find that a sunday fair was held here for many ages: this disgraceful nuisance is now happily removed.”
Perhaps the loss of the merrymaking resulted in a loss of the custom as when Frank Elgee visited in the 1930s noted in his 1957 A Man of the Moors, extracts from the Diaries and Letters of Frank Elgee (published in 1992) he described as:
“18 July 1936. “This evening we took the bus to Langbaurgh Quarries to examine the site an ancient Chapel and its sacred Well, which are close by…a spring flowing out of an iron pipe to meet a pool muddied by the feet of cattle”.
He had hoped to find fragments of the garments hung over the pool, in past times, as charms against disease, but was disappointed.
The site today?
A visit by Graeme Chapel on the Yorkshire holy well website noted that:
“The site of this once famous well is located just to the north of Great Ayton village, in a small fenced off area at the edge of a grassy field. Today the well is a wet boggy area at the foot of a Hawthorn bush (dead?). The wells healing waters appear to have had chalybeate properties, as orange-red deposits are still visible on the boggy surface of the spring, unfortunately the spring head is now so choked that the waters seep away instead of flowing along its former drainage channel. However probing through the mud reveals what may be a paved or cobbled area in front of the spring.
Finding the exact site was a bit of a challenge. Despite being marked on the old OS maps and guidance: a couple of sites appeared to suggest to be the exact one. Sadly it was completely forgotten – no rags and not even any water – but the indication of a dead hawthorn and a soft soil suggests the correct site. No sign of any pavement except some stones nearby and no chalybeate water! Unfortunately, it was largely inaccessible being surrounded by barbed wire! However, archaeologically it would sound that may would possibly be some significant remains hereabouts – not only a well, but a bath and suggestive by the name a chapel perhaps?
Graeme Chapel’s excellent Yorkshire holy well continues:
The well lies on the parish boundary between Great Ayton and Guisborough, while to the west of the well a little used single track railway line lies a little too close for comfort, but the view to the east is dominated by the mountain-like peak of Roseberry Topping (anciently called Odinsberg) where legend has it, Oswy, the young son of king Oswald, drowned in the Odinsbery spring high up on the hill top.
A footpath leading up to the summit passes near to the well and it is possible the two places were connected in local tradition.”
Now the Odinsbery spring has often been confused with the chapel well and as Chapel notes it seems likely the two were linked. The legends associated with this site deserve a full exploration but what is interesting is that Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells records a version of the legend of Oswy, the ill-fated drowned son of Oswald:
“strolling out one day with her child, they met a party of gipsies, who were anxious to tell her the child’s fortune. After being much importuned, she assented to their request. To the mother’s astonishment and grief they prognosticated that the child would be drowned.”
Why do I make reference to this? Well one of my theories about rag wells is their association with the travelling community and although this does not explicitly mention the well it suggests that gypsies were found in the area. Indeed I saw several traditional pony and trap and caravans in the area. However, it is clear that everyone has forgotten this spring!
Essex is not that noted for its holy wells, but as Holy Wells and Healing springs of Essex will attest there are a few and perhaps the most interesting is that of St Botolph’s in the picturesque village of Hadstock.
The earliest reference is in William Harrison’s 1567 Description of England he records:
“divers wells which have wrought many miracles in time of superstition, as St Botolph’s Well in Hadstock.”
John Wilson in his Imperial Gazetteer, III (1872) describes it as:
“A well set round with stones, and called St. Botolph’s Well, is in the churchyard.”
John Player’s 1877 Sketches of Saffron Walden and its vicinity notes
“We see it in that ever flowing stream passing under the Church yard wall affords an ample supply of pure unadulterated water of which the villagers gladly avail themselves. The well St Botolph’s well is near the Church and may it long continue a symbol of the purity of that heavenly lore which should proceed from that desk where the Rev Addisson Carr so long known and so much respected in this district pursued the even tenor of his sacred calling for so many years.”
However, by the time of Royal Commission on Historic Monuments, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, I (1916) it was:
“In the churchyard—a well, known as St. Botolph’s well, now covered.”
Indeed there would be some confusion regarding the exact location of this well. The church guide describes a pump to the west end of the churchyard as the well (but the only pump apparent was that across the road), however I was informed that this well was the one picturesquely situated by the road beneath the church. This is a brick-lined square well whose spring percolates into a pool covered in duckweed. No evidence of any material earlier than Victorian is apparent, suggesting it may date from when the pump was established. A wooden fence has been erected around it to prevent people falling in, but apparently the well itself has been covered.
An ancient site
Locally there is evidence of Iron Age occupation. Not far on the Cambridgeshire border is a ring enclosure, and pot shreds have been found in Hadstock Wood as well as bronze axe and an arrow in the village area. However, it is for its association with an Anglo – Saxon saint, Botolph, which has more relevance to the well.
Who was St Botolph?
“that place sanctified to religion in the days of the holy Botolph, there at rest”,
So states Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury in 1142. The well could be a significant site associated with a significant Anglo-Saxon saint interment. In 1974 Dr Warwick Rodwell carried out an archaeological investigation of the church and reported in The Antiquaries Journal, March 1976, 56 Part 1.:
“Total excavation of the nave, crossing, and transepts of Hadstock church in 1974, together with a detailed examination of parts of the upstanding fabric, revealed that this well-known Anglo-Saxon building is not a single-period structure, as has long been assumed. Three periods of Anglo-Saxon work are now known, the earliest of which probably belongs to the pre-Danish era: it comprised a large, five-cell cruciform church which, it is suggested, may be part of the seventh-century monastery founded by St. Botolph, at Icanho. Rebuilding on a monumental scale took place in the early eleventh century and the possibility is discussed that this was Canute’s minster, dedicated in 1020. The church was extensively repaired in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, following the collapse of the central tower. Subsequently the decline in the size and importance of Hadstock as a village saved the church from further extensive alteration.”
These three stages would appear to link to the idea that Icanho was destroyed by the Danish armies in 869 and by 970s all there was left was a one priest chantry chapel. It is thought that Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester obtained the King’s permission to remove the saint’s remains. He would then distribute them to a newly established Thorney which then became dedicated to Botolph, the royal reliquary at Westminster and Ely (which got the head). Although tradition also states that in 1090 they were stolen from Ely! What is interesting is that against the south transept’s east wall an empty grave. This being a significant location it seems highly likely this would be an important person. The village continued its connection with the saint having upheld a pre-Norman charter which allowed a fair to be held on St Botolph’s Day, the 17th of June.
Curative or kill?
Its waters have had a mixed reputation. Tradition records their ability to cure scrofula. Until recently the well was the important source of drinking water for the village. One tradition suggests that if a ring was dropped into it by a lovelorn girl she would find her true love. This tradition was supported by the finding of two rings recently in the cleaning of the well. Wilson (1970) notes a strange activity was practiced within living memory by the white witch: to keep the water pure, dead cats were placed down the well. Obviously, this was not continued for on one occasion the water was the harbinger of a typhoid outbreak, and forty percent of the population—or 40 people—died (although there is no evidence for either). The contamination was the result of the Rev F. E. Smith using the spring as an outlet for his lavatory. If this was not bad enough, one of his staff was a typhoid carrier! This is also notwithstanding, that it was commonly believed that the spring water drains from the graveyard above it: and hence it has earned the name ‘bone gravy’. Despite all these traditions, this did not deter the locals, who vouched for its goodness. Even when piped water was brought to the village in the 1930s, many locals could not see the point as the well water was good enough.
However, once cleaned it could surely be as good as suggested by this review in the London Strand Magazine:
“A Well In a Churchyard. Hadstock. in Essex. Possesses what is probably a unique water supply. It ls entirely derived from a deep well in the pariah churchyard The well is over 800 years old and ls known is St. Botolph’s well. The Inhabitants of Hadstock declare that it contains the best tea making water in Great Britain, and as the village in question ls one of the healthiest places In Essex there ls undoubtedly some truth In their boast?”
Sadly, now apparently due to some odd health and safety claim the well itself is covered with a large metal sheet and covered with flints, however its water still fill the pool beyond.
One has the feeling that St Botolph’s Well is one of the most significant wells of Anglo-Saxon England but so little is known. It is good that in a way that what was once a little known holy well is better known.
“so called after a fountain at the bottom of the Craigs…sacred in Popish times to the Virgin.”
One of the most ornate holy wells in an urban environment is Glasgow’s Lady Well. Laying check and jowl to a brooding industrial landscape of Tennent’s Brewery (does this mean holy water is in the Special Brew?)
It is noted by in the 1935 Glasgow Evening News ‘Encyclopedia of Glasgow’, Glasgow Evening News that the waters became polluted once the Necropolis was built they were redirected below it where the spring exited from the brae. The earliest mention of the well is mentioned by George Eyre-Todd 1934 History of Glasgow who stated that in 1715 when a John Black was paid a salary of 400 merks yearly to keep the well clean:
“Black was to furnish them with chains, buckets, sheaves, ladles, and other necessary graith, as well as with locks and iron bands. He was ‘to cleanse, muck and keep them clean,’ and to lock and open them in due time, evening and morning. In case of failure he was liable to a penalty of £100 Scots.”
Thus 1715 appears to be the earliest mention. It is likely to be much older, being noted on old maps. It may have provided water for Romans travelling the Carntyne Highway towards Antonine Wall. In medieval times it lay outside the old city wall.
Our Lady or local Lady
Paul Bennett in his 2017 Ancient and Holy Wells of Glasgow states that although it is assumed to be derived from Or Lady the site may be derived from a local benefactor, Lady Lochow, who lived nearby and built a hospital at the old Gorbels in the 14th century. However, there is no evidence bar the possibility it would be associated with the similarly unsubstantiated belief that it was sunk when commoners were denied access to the nearby Priest’s Well.
The well head was built in 1835-6 by the City Council and Merchants House when the area behind was converted into a burial ground; the necropolis. An account recorded in J. R. Walker’s 1882 Holy Wells in Scotland in the Proceedings Society Antiquaries Scotland states:
“THE LADY WELL, Ladywell Street, Glasgow. This well has been restored and rebuilt, as it bears. I have not been able to find any drawing showing the original structure. I cannot possibly imagine that the present building bears any resemblance to the former, it being now strictly classic in design and detail. The cross and urn are of cast metal. “Lady Love” or “Lady Well,” so called after a fountain at the bottom of the Craigs (now included in the Necropolis), sacred in Popish times to the Virgin.”
The structure originally was an open round artesian well and was developed into a classical style with the date being carved upon its lintel stone. The site remains a source of water until the 1860s when fresh water was the piped from Loch Katrine rather than another legend which claims it was closed up being a source of plague. There was later restoration in 1875, probably when the well head was capped, and then again in 1983 by the Tennent Caledonian Breweries beside which it incongruously lays. The well itself is more of an ornate folly head with its tureen like basin unlike any holy well I have ever seen nestled in its classical portico. It certainly fits into the grandeur of the necropolis above but as a holy well it is perhaps a little lacking in romance; however it is better off preserved than completely lost! It must mean something to a number of people for the basin and the base are littered with coins which surprisingly considering they are not in water have not been taken!
Last month I introduced the rag wells associated with Lincolnshire we now move southwards to explore the other sites.
At the significantly named Hemswell are the seven springs apparently rise from the spring wells and one of these is dedicated to St Helen’s Well (SK 932 911). The site has an eerie but not unquiet atmosphere. The proximity of a local stone called the Devil’s pulpit may help this of course. It is a large approximately six foot high piece of sandstone under which a small spring arises. This Ian Thompson (1999) Lincolnshire Wells and Springs notes local opinion thought was St. Helen’s, he said it tasted sweeten than the other waters (a fact that I cannot testify as the spring has appeared to have almost dried up the year I went). Peter Binnall (1845) in his theories on eye wells notes that the spring wells were regarded as possessing curative powers and rags were hung on the surrounding bushes. The dedication of St Helen is an interesting one of course and just within the main area. Jeremy Harte’s 2008 English Holy Wells suggests that the name is spurious and that Ethel Rudkin (1936) Lincolnshire Folklore does not refer to it as such, however in support of the view I had no problem locally detecting the well using this name in the village (incidentally Harte makes an error referring to the springs as Aisthorpe Springs, these are clearly another site). There was supposed to be a chapel or church associated with the site, of which there is no trace or record. There was no evidence of any rags on any of the trees and the only thing hanging was a rope for a tyre swing!
Not far away and still surviving are the Aisthorpe springs (SK 956 899) a curative spring and a rag well, despite what Thompson (1999) notes is not now incorporated into a sewage farm, although this is nearby. The spring arises with some force near by the footpath which passes towards the sewage farm and has a separate flow from that of the plant. The spring flows from a pipe beneath some thorn bushes, sadly without any sign of rags.
To the east is Holton cum Beckering were to the east of Holton Hall was a Rag Well according to Lincolnshire Notes and Queries which was said to have had some medicinal qualities, however recent correspondence with local vicar has shown that there is now no local knowledge of this well. The only evidence was a local name for a field to the south of the town known as Well Walk. There is a spring fed pool in churchyard but no traditions are given concerning this. It is possible perhaps that this is the same site as the Wishing Well at Nettleton.
Here at Nettleton, the Wishing well which is records as being half mile from church, east of the grange on land belonging to Holton Park hence the possible confusion with above. Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock (1908) Lincolnshire County Folklore note that:
“It was famous for its curative virtues, and thither many of the afflicted, until very recently, if not now, were wont to make a pilgrimage. A thorn tree grew over the well, which used to be covered with votive offerings, chiefly bits of rag, the understood condition to any benefit being that whoever partook of the water should ‘leave something.’ The thorn tree, however, is now cut down.”
Again no local people could determine the existence of this site and nothing is marked on maps.
Kingerby Spa (TF 045 914) whose name first appears in 1824 as the site of a Chalybeate spring might seem an unusual place for a rag well but it is an old site. In Lincolnshire notes and queries state that large numbers of coins dating back to Elizabeth I, were dredged from the pool. Records tell that in 1900, pins and coins were found nearby, and the thorn rags were full of rags. Mr Wilkinson states that it became popular in Victorian times as a place to go for the healing waters and he had seen a photo of the spring with strips of cloth fastened to the bushes surrounding the spring but could not locate it. He believed it fell out of popularity after the turn of the century, and suggested that the landowner was against people tramping over his land to reach it. However, as late as the 1990s, that the then owner was thinking of selling the waters. Mr. Wilkinson also noted that last time he saw the spa it resembled a pipe discharging into a dyke. This is at variance to Pastscape, which notes that the site consists of a small oval shaped isolated pool which has three courses of narrow brickwork forming a semi-circular rim with another brick course and a coping stone set into the side of the hollow suggesting that was a well house. Despite appearing to exist as a small pool on both the current O/S and Google maps; recent field work failed to reveal it. The site would appear to have either dried up or purposely filled in. Field train channels were nearby. This was despite being described on the parish map outside the church, although interestingly this revealed itself to be in another location to that noted on the map so maybe I was pixy led.
The last traditional site is the chalybeate Blind Well (TF 085 208) on the edge to Bourne Wood is the furthest south rag well. However, there are no signs of rags now. Its water was used to cure eye complaints and sold in Bourne Market. It is now rather neglected being rather weed filled and untidy surrounded by a rather ugly wooden frame.
Thus completes the traditional rag wells but as I have eluded to before what is interesting is the site called Lud’s Well (TF 176 937) at Stainton Le Vale. The evocative site is a spring which arises in a small cave like structure and fills a small pool. When I saw it in the summer it was a bit dry but apparently it forms a small waterfall according to local sources. I learnt of the site from Thompson’s 1999 work and when visited did not see any sign of ribbons. Now this is the county’s only rag well. This can be seen from this screenshot from a recent video visiting the site. Why?
The origin of the name may suggest why. Although it is believed to come from O.E Hlud meaning ‘loud’ others prefer to believe it is derived from Celtic deity Lud, this however is unlikely. Thus it seems very likely that the site has been adopted by the local pagan community who have adopted the attaching of ribbons as a pagan gesture.
So why. Such a cluster as far east as it is as possible to go puts in question the idea that the custom is strongly Celtic in origin perhaps. So why in Lincolnshire. A theory I discuss in my working thesis on the work is that the custom was brought by gypsy communities who had a stronghold in the county. However, why these particular springs is unclear perhaps like Winterton, Hemswell, Aisthorpe, Healing they were close to main roads – we cannot state this in the case of the lost sites of course.
What is interesting is how quickly the custom died out in the county and one wonders whether this is correlated by the reduction in gypsy numbers as well.
Holy well hunting can be a tough activity; covered in nettles, cuts, mud and water and still you may only find a boggy hole or concreted site. Even when it seems simple ie marked by a roadside it is not always easy. Therefore this is why it is important to search for wells in the winter month summed up by this comment on Geograph by a Humphrey Bolton :
“I had looked for this in vain several times, but was eventually informed by a lady of 90 years that it is under a hawthorn bush. After cautiously entering the bush from the side, removing a few nettle stems, I was able to take this photograph. Apparently it is opened up as necessary in times of drought, so there must be a stone slab under the twigs and soil.”
Thus in February I searched for the Lady well at Hartshead.
An ancient pre-Christian well
The Rev H. N Pobjoy in their 1972 ‘Story of the ancient parish of Harthead and Clifton’, states it may well have been here before the church which dates to 500 A.D in foundation. The author also states that it is possible that its waters were used by St. Paulinus to baptism local converts. The saint was based at Dewsbury so it is possible. It is also said that the church of St. Peter is aligned to the equinoxes which may indicate some pre-christian observations at the site. In the churchyard is a venerable yew said to predate the church as well. One wonders whether the church was once dedicated to St Mary originally?
It’s Kirklees so there must be a Robin Hood association
Not far from Hartshead is Kirklees were one can find Robin Hood’s grave. Therefore it would not be surprising to hear that no only did he use the yew tree in the grounds of the church for his bow – perhaps the famed one which he shot for the location of his burial – but he drank of the spring water.
Difficult to find?
In away the well being covered by the only large tree along Lady Well Lane means it is easy to find – well in winter anyway. As such I pushed back the branches beneath. The side closest to the road appeared to be closed over and covered in earth but I had heard that the site was a trough split in two. Jumping over the fence I found the other side of the trough and this was full of water. This was in line with what has been reported about the site being purposely closed up and only opened in times of drought.
Val Shepherd in their Holy Wells of West Yorkshire and the Dales in 2002 notes that there was in 1925-7 a historical pageant enacted about the church and that the area was associated with Whitsun walks. She also draws an association with Walton Cross – a cross base – derived from O.E Wagstan meaning a ‘guide’ post and was on the boundary of Bradford/Kirklees and their may have been an association with the holy well.
It would be good to see the Lady Well be restored as stated by Shepherd but at least as long as the lane is named after it it will be remembered and easier to find!
In April I examined a well know rag well but as research for my Holy wells and Healing Springs of Lincolnshire regards the county is a hot bed for rag wells. In this first part I will examine those found in the far north of the county
Perhaps the oldest account of such a rag well is that associated with the Holy Well at Winterton not far from the ragged springs at Healing. Winterton’s Holy Well (SE 944 178) was undoubtedly an ancient one, recorded as the fieldnames as 13th Century Haliuel, c.1200, Haliwelle Daile, early 13th century and gives its name to Holy Well Dale on road to Appleby. The earliest account by a Mr Joseph Fowler, of Winterton, who was born in the year 1791, remembered people who had seen rags on the bushes near. Andrew (1836) notes:
“There are excellent springs about Winterton, one of which, lying in a field eastward of the town, called “the Holy-well Dale”, has the property of petrifying vegetable matter”
Edward Peacock, 1877), A Glossary of Words Used in the Wapentakes of Manley and Corringham, Lincolnshire, English Dialect Society 15 which describes it as accounted useful in the cure of many sorts of sickness. Fowler (1908) notes that:
“an old lady of eighty-one years tells me of how people frequented that spring, hung fragments of linen or cloth or ribbon on the hedge or bushes near, and took its healing water away in bottles.”
Charles Edward Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells takes a number of sources, some hitherto unknown. These are:
“WINTERTON : HOLY WELL DALE. There is a spring at Holy Well Dale, near Winterton, in North Lincolnshire, formerly celebrated for its healing properties; and the bushes around used to be hung with rags.
Sadly this is a site which despite still being marked on the current OS has apparently been recently removed in the last 15 years by drainage. The fate of the well emphasizes the need for preservation of such sites. In a report by Pastscape, they note that Mr. Herring, a local farmer indicated this spring on the ground at and said it ran following rain. They noted more modern piped spring nearby probably accounts for the mainly dry state of the old spring. It is interesting that in Hilary Healey (1995a), Lincolnshire holy wells in Lincs. P & P 19 pp. 3–6. they record the attachment of a rag to a nearby signpost.
Nearer to Scunthorpe at Bottesford is a site which has been discussed before on this blog by Ian Thompson under his examination of the Templar’s Bath nearby. Near the church is St John’s Well, a grade II listed approximately five foot high stone and brick well house, whose spring arises in the garden above it and flows towards the wall where the well is situated. Its masonry is mainly of Victorian date with possible older stones. A fairly recent gate is set across the entry but one can still peer inside to see the water inside in its sunken trough, although the actual well which is said to be eight feet deep is inaccessible in the garden of St. John’s House as noted. Locally I have heard it called St. John’s Ragwell but no authority can justify it but I would suggest that as its rag well and not clootie well it is probably authentic.
One of the most intriguing rag well is to be found to the north east of the village of Utterby along Holywell Lane. It is simply called the Holy Well (TF 317 937) and here it is said that coins were dropped and it was formerly a rag-well of great repute for its medicinal qualities. Peacock (1895) notes quoting White’s directory that:
“The surrounding bushes used to be tufted over with tatters left by people who visited it to benefit by its waters. Three or four years ago, if not later, remnants of clothing might still be seen on the shrubs. Persons yet living have taken their children to this well, and, after sprinkling them with water, have dropped a penny into it for good luck.”
This would appear to be the same site which Cordeaux, J., (1876), Anatolian folk-lore, Notes & Queries describes as a rag well near Great Cotes, Ulceby.
The springs appear on the first 6” O/S map as Holy Well (chalybeate) and remained until 1951 edition, when it disappeared. Thorogold and Yates in the Shell Guide of Lincolnshire (1965) describe it as a holy well full of sticks in a spinney. A correspondent to Collins (2011) called Steve, notes of the site:
“Finding it amongst the dense thorn bushes is another thing, dowsing helped me locate it back in the early 1990’s. I cleared out a 6 foot deep hollow many leaves and cans etc. and it was very dry. I returned about 6 months later to find it full of bubbling red rich water….”
When researching the site for Holy wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire I could not find any evidence of a site. Indeed the site according to the Utterby Heritage group is now is dry and rather overgrown, hidden and no longer traceable. A return visit in early December always a good time to search for holy wells enabled me to get into the thicket and despite some promising hollows I could not claim to have found the exact site. However, clearly someone in the Utterby group know the exact location as they stated there would be a plan to restore the site at some time in the future.
In the next instalment we shall travel southwards and explore why rag wells are prevalent in Lincolnshire
As the restrictions on travel have been largely lifted we are all free to visit holy wells again further afield so this is my last armchair visit – hopefully!
Waltham Abbey in Essex was said to have been fed by a series of well recorded Holy Springs which were granted to the Abbey by William of Wormley. It gave them the right to fish in the piscina of Wormele, and all the fountains. Wormley, itself was an estate conferred by Edward the Confessor to Waltham’s college of secular cannons, founded by Harold in 1060. This was later re- founded as an Augustinian abbey. In 1220-1222, a conduit was laid to take water in lead pipes from Wormley, about three miles away. The granting of the rights to the springs, and the laying of this facility is well recorded in a Manuscript (Harl. MS 391 folio 6). The springs were called ‘fons Wrmeleiae’, and appear to have been situated on property adjoining the main road on the east, and bound on the north by the Parish boundary, and on the south by Wharf Road. Despite what would have been a distance from the Abbey!
This area has been known as Small Wells: the conduit started here. The manuscript shows an elaborate sketch is given, with several streams and three springs: a main pipe carries the water from a pool over a bank of clay into another large pool. On the south of this were two pipes or outlets intended to carry off waste water, and to convey water for washing. It continued eastward to Waltham Abbey.
In 1907, a large section of wooden conduit was discovered in Slipe Lane. Using the early documents as their source, Waltham Abbey Historical Society sought the site(s) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Excavations were made at Smallwells, but nothing was discovered. Further excavations were made to the site and grounds of Springs House, further south from Smallwells. A survey of Cheshunt dated 1562 shows ‘the conduite crofte’. Although, now in the Parish of Cheshunt, it is believed that it was in Wormley. This revealed a trough three feet wide and one foot deep in the centre, formed in a stone layer about four feet below modern ground level, and largely filled with silt. This could not be dated but appeared to be a leet. Despite this nothing conclusive was discovered. The exact site appears to have been lost. Or has it?
Perhaps the springs did not arise at Small wells. An interesting possible alternative is described by John Edward Cussans in his History of Hertfordshire (1870-3) and again on a visit by the East Herts Archaeological Society, who visited it in 1902. These ‘once celebrated Chalybeate springs’ lay in the meadow adjoining the house of Stanstedbury. Indeed the East Herts Archaeological Society suggest was the source for Waltham Abbey’s water supply, as the house was one of their granges. Interestingly, the report continues to state that one of the springs flows into the cellar part of the house called the Monk’s chapel, where a piscina and ambry are found.
In research for my Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Hertfordshire I approached the owners, the Trowers, in the early 1990s. They said they were happy to explore the site including the cellar. I arrived and saw that there were springs in the grounds close to the house. One arising in a roughly square grey stone structure, parts of which appear old, possibly mediaeval at the base, but the water arises in a black boggy hole. There was also nearby a circular brick well head, but has been filled in, and appeared Victorian. Close to this is a deep square well which is still full of water, covered by a concrete domed structure (like a pigsty). I was informed by Mr. Trower, the owner that he has to remove iron from their own water supply hence the chalybeate springs were still present.
The water from the well head appears to flow towards the house, which would be concurrent with view of the water entering the cellars. However, despite scrambling about for some time beneath the great hall in the cellar, I could not locate this piscina and ambry. It would appear to have been lost when the room above was deepened by shortening the cellar beneath in the 1930s. This required the walling to be improved and now it is red-bricked. Mrs. Trower remembers that the cellar was very damp. Why there should be such a chapel is unclear, possibly it was designed to continue Catholic mass after the Reformation, but as Mrs. Trower noted the property was never in the hands of a recusant family although it perhaps it was part of an under croft for the grange. Interestingly, I had heard of the springs were developed as a spa but the Trowers had never heard of this, and their family had been there for a long period; nor have I found any evidence other than the springs being celebrated.
Were these springs the Holy Springs of Waltham Abbey? The distance is the problem of course Stansted Abbotts is even further away than Wormley. Perhaps they were both owned by the Abbey but not as direct water supplies as such but as waters for the communities there perhaps as holy wells and the revenue went to the Abbey?
A fragment of cream coloured cloth is a curious exhibit piece at Oxford Universities’ Pitt Rivers museum. It states:
“Votive rags from St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch near Boston Spa, West Yorkshire 1884.140.331 is an example of the votive rags that were tied to a tree near a well.”
Interestingly it also notes:
“Oddly this item was not accessioned into the Pitt Rivers Museum collections until the 1990s though it had lain in the museum for over a hundred years by then.”
This rag is perhaps unique being the only museum example of a rag taken from a rag well (considering the folklore associated with such sites I would be interested what happened to the collector). It is fitting to have this record of one of the countries most famed rag wells. For outside the famed Clootie Well and Madron Well, St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch is perhaps the most famed rag well; one which today only a memory survives perhaps –and this acquisition is interestingly the earliest reference to the site. The earliest published reference is in A Thousand miles in Wharfedale by Edmund Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm.”
A gewgaw would appear to refer to rags as the dictionary definition being a showy thing, especially one that is useless or worthless. A term which has largely fallen out of usage since the Victorian times.
Our next reference is Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells. He explicitly now refers to rags, as he notes that:
“It was usual for those who consulted the oracle at this well to make an offering there of a scrap of cloth. This was fastened to an adjoining thorn, which, being literally covered with pieces of, rag, presented a peculiar appearance.”
Harry Speight (1902) Lower Wharfedale visited St. Helen’s Well he notes in reference to a cross:
“This interesting relic of the ancient faith was discovered here, hidden among brushwood near the celebrated spring which bears St. Helen’s name. Whitaker thinks that the distinguished lady had crossed the ford of Wharfe, and that in all probability she had drank at this well, which for centuries afterwards became a very popular resort of religious votaries, particularly from the vicinity of York. Subsequently a chapel was erected on the spot, which was standing in Leland’s time, but the Reformation did away with most of these wayside oratories, and not a stone now remains.
He description of the rag custom seems to suggest it was by his time in abeyance:
Such, however, was the fascination of this time-honoured spot, that down even to our own time pilgrimages continued to be made to the holy fountain, and bits of metal or pins were thrown into the water, or ribbons were attached to the adjoining bushes (as many as forty or fifty have been seen within living memory), in propitiation of the good cause of St. Helen and Christianity. The water is beautifully soft and clear, and in former times was much resorted to as a specific for sore or weak eyes.”
By the time that C.N. Bromehead wrote an article entitled ‘Rag Wells,’ in Antiquity IX, March 1935 he visited the well he recorded that:
“There is now no well or visible spring, but from the position at the lower margin of a gravel terrace it is obvious that water would be obtained by digging a few feet; a small stream flows just east of the site.”
Yet despite its lost he noted that:
“It is curious that the hanging of rags should survive when the actual well has vanished, but the writer has visited the spot many times in the last seven years and there are always plenty of obviously recent additions. The custom is to stand facing the well (i.e., due west), preferably after sunset, wish, and then attach something torn from one’s clothing either to the big tree — wych elm — or to any of the bushes.”
Like a precursor of the lovelocks folk craze now current everywhere the author then continues to observe:
“Probably the custom is largely maintained by vagrants who frequently camp in the wood, but it also has its attraction for courting couples from the neighbouring villages!”
Certainly the final nail in the coffin was in 1940 when a munitions factory called ROF Thorp Arch was opened following compulsory purchase of the land. This made St Helen’s Lane and the Rag Well out of bounds until 1958 when the site was closed. According to Pastscape historical record that in 1958 it recorded:
“St. Helen’s Well (a Votive or Rag Well) still used as such. The Well, now dry and overgrown, has no associated masonry, and appears to have been a simple spring.”
This appears to be to the contra of the fact the munitions factory had emasculated the custom. Yet it was doubtless on the way out for by 1963, this entry had been updated to read:
“There are no visible remains of the chapel, but the contour of the ground in the vicinity of the well, suggests a natural hillock at SE 45134583 as the probable site.
However even in the 2000s ribbons could still be seen in the vicinity but whether these were placed by locals seeking a cure or local pagans keen to continue the tradition is unclear but it is interestingly that one of the most famous English rag wells lives on. I only wish that those who had attached the current rags were aware of the that original in Oxford and ensured that their examples were cotton based!