Now on the edge of a modern housing estate on the outskirts of Brecon, the Maen du well is a delightful find. Nestling in a small wood, a signed footpath takes you from the road to another world. The well is a small building, measuring 1.7, by 1.5 m inside. It is constructed of stone with a high vaulted roof formed with overlapping slabs. A doorway leads into a shallow pool of clear water with steps descending into it. The water flows into a large stone lined pool below it.
How old is it?
Despite resembling the early Christian chapel/monastic cells that survive in Ireland and Scotland . A stone by the entrance is engraved 1754 with the initials WW. Which suggests it is not medieval after all. However, this could be the date it was built, or perhaps of a later rebuilding. The remains of an older well-building maybe evidenced by the ring of rough boulders in the pool.
An article provides more in The Express dated 27th February 1913:
“THE MAENDU WELL – The well-known and ancient well is situated four fields from Maendu Street, and is to the north of the Priory Church. There is a pathway leading from Maendu Street, but this path for many months of the year is simply a gutter to carry away the water overflowing from fields higher up which badly want draining. The well was for many years the chief supply for the people residing in the Baileyglas and Pendre, and in ancient times it also supplied the Brecknock Castle. Old Sam Cooke, whose father was at one time wood-man to the Camden estate at Brecon, tells us that the well for some years also supplied water to Priory House, being carried through pipes to a tank placed in one of the fields near the Priory Churchyard. There is always a strong and clean supply of water. The well is arched over with stone-work and behind is planted a holly tree. On a stone at the entrance are the letters and figures “W.W. 1754” – probably the date when the present arch was erected. The stone-work shows signs of decay on the N.E. The dimension of the well inside is about 5 feet square, and the roof is about 10 feet from the water, which is only a foot deep, but very clear. The water runs away to a place outside, where those who were in the habit of fetching the water could descend steps and there place their water vessels, beneath the running stream.”
A well for the castle
Thompson notes Pen y Crug an iron age hill fort nearby and suggests that the population therein used the spring. Certainly, Maen-Du well supplied Brecon Castle with water. An account reads:
“THE MAENDU WELL SUPPLIES THE CASTLE.
Hugh Thomas tells us, that at each corner of what he calls the square of this spacious building, were two watch towers, as might then be seen. The ruins of two of them still remain at the southern angle, and join an elevated and artificial mound, to the north east is the keep, since the confinement of Morton bishop of Ely, called Ely tower, where the conversation with the duke of Buckingham, mentioned in the former volume, is supposed to have passed. The adjoining ground on this side is considerably higher than the site of the castle, which made the northern front more assailable than on any other aspect ; there were here therefore, in addition to the deep ravine or mote before noticed, two additional fosses, occasionally filled with water from a well called the Maendy well, which also supplied the fortress, though from the facility with which this stream could be interrupted by an enemy in the time of a siege, there can be no doubt that there was also a well within the walls, as water could be procured there without digging to any great depth.”
A well for lovers
This well is very generally known as “The Wishing Well”, and love sick maidens are said to make pilgrimages and drop pins in the water whilst making their wishes.
Ian and Francis Thompson note in their 1999 The Waters of Life notes:
“the water was also good for eye complaints. We were assured that one man still fills his bottles at the well for his own use and that of his dog, who will not drink the local tap water.”
Richard Hall, the Brecon poet, has a reference to this well in his “Tale of the Past and other poems.” Today there are no pins in the well that can be seen so perhaps the lovers have ceased to come…and now only local children hide out in this place.
Thompson notes that:
“within living memory hat pins were dropped in the well by girls seeking a husband, and since hatpins were relatively expensive, cheap imitations were sold in local shops for this purpose.”
The pool was restored with EU money and a local group called the Maen Du Group since 2009 have looked after the site clearing litter from the site, keeping the pond clean and producing signage although part of this sign has recently been vandalised. One does wonder how long the well can survive with the encroachment of urbanisation on its doorstep but for now it remains a romantic curiosity.
There are records of a considerable number of rag wells in Lincolnshire and as such a cluster can be identified. In a couple of posts we shall be exploring the sites focusing on some in detail such as the significantly named Ragged springs near Cleethorpes to the north of the county which is the focus on this blog post.
First it is worth considering the name. The springs themselves whilst possibly being an ancient site, noted by the fact that the earliest name for the parish is Heghelinge. One may make the assumption that perhaps this derives from the springs. However, this is at variance to the view of the Cameron (1985-2002) as it is noted that Hægelingas is derived from ‘the sons or followers of a man named Hægel’ rather than healing, although it is of course a strange coincidence perhaps.
The first reference appears to be Charles Edward Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells, which of course takes a number of sources, some hitherto unknown, but often from local accounts. He records it confusing under another nearby village and states?
“Lincolnshire GREAT COTES, ULCEBY. Here is a spring celebrated locally for its healing properties. It rises from the side of a bank in a plantation, and is overshadowed by an ancient thorn, on the branches of which hang innumerable rags, fastened there by those who have drunk of its waters.”
Gutch and Peacock (1908) note that a:
“Mr. Cordeaux visited them not long since for the purpose of discovering whether pins are ever dropped into them, but the bottom of the water in both cases was too muddy and full of leaves to allow accurate examination.”
According to Gutch and Peacock (1908) each well had a different use, one spring being a chalybeate one was done for eye problems, whereas the other was for skin problems. They continue to note that a:
“F S, a middle-aged man, who grew up in an adjoining parish, states that when he was a lad, one spring was used for bathing, and the second for drinking. The latter was considered good against consumption, among other forms of sickness. . . . What the special gift of the bathing well was F S cannot say. He often plunged his feet into it when a boy, but he does not venture to assert that it had any great power in reality, although ‘folks used to come for miles,’ and the gipsies, who called the place Ragged Spring or Ragged Well, frequently visited it. A Gentleman who hunts with the Yarborough pack every winter, says that he notices the rags fluttering on the shrubs and briars each season as he rides past. There is always a supply of these tatters, whether used superstitiously or not, and always has been since his father first knew the district some seventy years ago.”
The custom apparently continued until the 1940s, indeed a visitor in the 1920s noted that even the trunks were covered with longer pieces of rag. A picture in Healy (1995) shows a number of rags on the bushes as seen below.
It is worth noting that perhaps the presence of a large thorn perhaps suggests a great antiquity to the site The springs are still marked on the current OS map, as Healing Wells, in a small plantation, but they are, as the photo shows, only marked by circular indentations in the ground, the first spring being the easier to trace and appears to have holes, although these may be made by animals.
The springs are now quite dry, perhaps that the clogging of the springs noted above continued as the springs were forgotten, resulting in the current situation. Lying around the springs are a range of metal buckets in various stages of decay and some metal pieces which may be remains of a metal fence around it. I was unable to find any sign of rags although the man I asked in the whereabouts referred to them as the ragged springs. So there name maybe remembered even if the custom has long since been forgotten.
Suffolk strangely is not over endowed with holy, healing and noted wells and one is indebted to the pioneering work of Michael Burgess in his nigh impossible to obtain 1978 Holy Wells and Ancient Crosses of Norfolk and Suffolk a East Suffolk & Norfolk Antiquarians Occasional Paper 2. So when one is noted it is of considerable interest despite its provenance. The Holy Well at Kedington is mentioned in Burgess’s work.
The village of Kedington near Haverill has such a site simply called the Holy Well. The village is itself a delightful place full of interest namely its church where a rare circular Saxon cross head with an image of Jesus is located.
Burgess (1978) informs us that in the rectory gardens, also called Ketton House and states:
“In the grounds of Kedington rectory is a ‘holy well’ with supposed healing powers. At one time it was actually by the roadside but the road has since been diverted. Covered by a rounded brick hood, the we us about 41/2 feet deep, and has never been known to fail.”
The site has been on my to do list for some while and then last year around Easter time I happened to be in the area and able to visit the site. The gardens are regularly open for the Garden Open Scheme so I felt the owner would be possible amenable to my search. The gates were open and I walked over to the large house walked on the steps and rang the bell. A call came out and the owner appeared. I explained my search and he said I’ll get my wellingtons on and show you. Its current owner Mr Max Dyre-Bartlett was happy to show me and as can be seen it is an unusual well situated below the house but a fair way I would say from the road to suggest this part of the account may be erroneous and perhaps recants a movement of the spring into this well head? Similarly, despite the claim it never failed, he remarked that in the 20 years of living on the property it had never flowed. He also repaired and cleared the well which has an unusual brick built spiral stepped walkway to the well. The well has either lost its hood or else the small curved brickwork is what remains of it or is the hood. Mr Max Dyre-Bartlett could not remember if it had more brickwork but on inspection it seems unlikely. This brickwork looks around Victorian in part and pre-Imperial in other suggesting an early 1700 origin. There is a hole below the level of the floor which is either where the water flows into the well head or out to prevent flooding.
A pilgrim route?
Apart from providing unfailing supply of water, another tradition states that pilgrims used it on their way to Bury stating:
“Tradition says it was used by pilgrims on their way to the shrine to St. Edmund at Bury.”
This could certainly be true as it is close by but perhaps more interestingly, it is also in a straight line passing not far from the holy wells of St Wendreda near Newmarket and Holy Well Row near Mildenhall to the greater shrine of Walsingham.
Holy Well or not?
The site does not appear to be well known. It is not mentioned in a review of the garden in Garden open scheme, the church warden was unaware of it and indeed the current owner, Mr Max Dyre-Bartlett was unaware that it was a holy well. However, he was certainly interested in it being one and me bonded over both sharing a holy well on our property mine being under the house of course! So is it one? It certainly is unusual, indeed I have never seen one with such an unusual path way. However, perhaps as Burgess is the only source should be cautious? The site is also not mentioned in Harte (2008) English Holy Wells. Its location in a rectory garden is significant but how much we can use this as a solution is unclear. This notwithstanding if you are in the area when the gardens are open it is worth examining.
Despite the thundering sounds of motorways nearby, the industry of Aylesford and the urban sprawl of Maidstone and Rochester not far away the triangle of area trapped between this modernisation clinging to the edges of the ancient pilgrim’s way still has a feel of something ancient and mysterious. Many people visit the area to see its megalithic remains – Kit’s Coty, lower Kit’s Coty and the White horse stone, but in this area are a number of springs which tantalisingly may suggest a similar ancient ritual use.
Many years ago I picked up a delightfully named volume A Tramp in Kentish Pilgrim Land by Coles Finch. A 1925 book whose research and details are of much interest. One of the sites he discusses is the Pilgrim’s Spring, (TQ 731 614) in the old community of Tottington, which he describes a pool surrounded by sarsens believed to be of ancient origin:
“Spread around this beautiful spring head in plenteous disorder is a large number of huge stones, some thrown into the bed of the stream, others supporting its margins. Some half buried and peep through the ground. With Cromlech and altar thrown down and heaped around the spring, it is left to our imagination to picture this site of ancient water worship in the dim and distant past. The stone circle appears to have completely encircled the principal spring; hence there are reasonable grounds for concluding that too was devoted to water worship.”
Earlier in 1872 a James Fergusson visited the area and noted:
…nearer the village [Aylesford] exists or existed, a line of great stones, extending from a place called Spring Farm, in a north-easterly direction, for a distance of three quarters of a mile, to another spot known as Hale Farm passing through Tollington [sic], where the greater number of the stones are now found. In front of the line near the centre at Tollington lie two obelisks, known to the country people as the coffin stones – probably from their shape. They are 12 feet long by 4 to 6 broad, and about 2 to 3 feet thick. They appear to be partially hewn, or at least shaped, so as to resemble one another.
Of course, the description is perhaps tainted by the ‘Druid’ obsession of Victorian antiquarians, so perhaps the stones are natural, although close to recognised ancient monuments, they are still to be found in area some up righted by the farmer The springs still exist too, but the number of sarsens associated with them appears to have been reduced, and one would suggest that a number have been dragged from their position and placed on the Coffin Stone.
Another similar site is a Spring (TQ 745 599) which is also situated by the Pilgrims way, and was probably associated with the nearby lost chapel of St. Michael, Alfred John Dunkin in his 1846 History of the County of Kent describes it as a Druidical pool:
“East of the Medway at Cossington, at the base of the hill on which Kits Coty House stands, water of the spring is intensely cold in summer and very warm in the winter.” He records that stones and similar objects placed in the water become coated in a red tinge, which undoubtedly created deep superstition regarding their powers.”
He also notes that around the spring head:
“still lie many of the massive boulders of their temple in a well preserved semicircular form.”
Dr. Thorpe’s work of 1788 cited in Hasted (1797-1811) History of Kent describes Cossington’s spring as:
“At the bottom issue several springs, which are so cold and sharp that the water is said to cramp and kill ducks, and the flints that lie in it are tinged red as blood, and to try the experiment stones have been marked and put in, which, in less than a year’s time, were of the same colour.”
Finch (1925) believes that these properties were exaggerated, and were certainly not considered when the water company took charge of the water; he describes the stream as now only flowing at a meagre flow and only feeding some pools by the ruins of Cossington Manor. Sadly, the site was been taken over by the waterworks and consequently at the spring head there is nothing of interest. Near Cossington farm, there are the ruins of the ancient manor and beneath this a rag stone pool, built to grow watercress. Yet, these are the only artefacts of interest, as the spring head itself is of no longer interest.
Below Boxley’s All Saint’s Church, Finch (1925) recorded a Pilgrim’s Pool (TQ 775 589) where the pilgrims would have presumably refreshed themselves or bathed. This pool has become over grown and rubbish strewn, compared to Finch’s (1925) time. The railings that lined the pool as shown in Finch’s photo are now bent, buckled and rusty. Overall, the pool is largely forgotten, and not even mentioned by the church guide. Hasted (1797-1811) notes two Petrifying Springs in the vicinity, and these are presumably the ones which arise inaccessibly in a small copse near the ruins of Boxley Abbey and the old vicarage garden (TQ 766 591, and TQ 774 589).
All of these sites potentially suggest the location of the Haly Well of Haley Garden. This has caused a fair amount of confusion from Kent historians being some discussion has occurred regarding its exact location, although Hale Farm may have taken its name from it. Harris (1719) in his work on Kent Topography notes that a well, that had many virtues, in particular cleansing sin:
“Under Boreham (Burham, Burgham) formerly there was a fountain in this Parish (South Philipot) at a place called Haly or Holy Garden, which was accounted mighty sacred by common people, and had very uncommon virtues ascribed to it, and in the 17th year of King Richard II, The Friars Carmelites of Aylesford obtained a grant by letters Pateill to bring the water from to their monastery.”
The nearby Friars at Aylesford are also said to have built an aqueduct from the site. Finch (1925) believes that the well lay eleven hundred yards due west of the Kewland Wheel Well house. Although, he also states that other authorities believed that this wheel well itself was the site. This belief was discredited, however, when its well shaft was explored: no chambers or tunnels were found to lead off of from it. Sadly, there is no evidence of Great Kewland house, although some house debris down a nearby wooded quarry can be located, although being tightly fenced in, one is unable to find any remains of a well or local knowledge.
Another possible site is a Roman or Ancient Draw Well, (TQ 741 809) According to Finch (1925), there is a legend connecting the well with another that of Kewland by a secret tunnel. Finch (1925) notes that there is:
“…an elm tree and some stones of various sizes, beneath which is a well only some two feet in diameter, but tested to be 113 feet deep. This doubtlessly was sunk for a water supply for the Roman occupants hereabouts.”
Finch (1925) expected that this well was a local myth but was fortunate to find a sixty year old man, who as a boy, used to drop flints down it. He notes that:
“The elm tree is bowed over with age and its sinuous roots have all but closed the entrance to the well, leaving but a tiny aperture through which one could see the rough coping stones. With a little dexterity, one could drop a stone, time its fall, and hear the thus as it fell upon the accumulated debris on the bottom no casual visitor could find the well, even though accurately marked upon a plan, without a guide.”
Certainly, it is unmarked on the present maps, and attempting to uncover its location I was hindered by considerable ivy cover and rubbish. I did locate a large amount of brick and stone debris at one site and possibly remains of a dead elm, but conclusively. Its location and indeed the location and meaning of the springs remains a mystery. Much of my field and archival research was done in the 1990s and detailed in Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent but even with the power of the internet these sites have not revealed themselves.
When doing field work for holy wells you can never know what you might find. A boggy hole surrounded by nettles or a fantastic romantick folly! Sadly more often it is the former as regular readers of this blog could attest. However,
There is said to be a little south of the old church is according to Francis Blomefield in his 1805 An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk :
‘a curious spring called Holy or Ladyes Well’
No such name appears on the first series OS but a well is marked to the south-east and this would be the same as that which is marked on the early 17th century map as Ladyeswell. From the early fourteenth century the priory was usually referred to as St. Mary ad fontes, St. Mary de fontibus or St. Mary at the Welle. The site lies in the south-eastern corner of the churchyard area, around 50m south east of the church.
When I first looked for the site I was thwarted by the gate and barbed wire. My sources suggested that there was a spring beside the lake and old maps did show this but I assumed it had been absorbed by the pond. Returning on a fine spring day I realised that the fence and barbed wire had a gap and a small gate which opened and a path lead towards the trees where the lack of foliage indicated some sort of well structure.
It consists of an approximately semi-circular basin, lined with stone blocks, with a shelf or sitting area, although the water filled the whole area. Three steps go down into the water. Above this is a probably 19th century wellhead on its east side, consisting of a round headed wall with a central niche which constructed of some reused architectural fragments and stone blocks some laying on the bench surrounding the spring. These coming from the ruined church above which is Saxon in date. Above the niche is a piece of relief carving. This would appear to be the same that Michael Burgess in his 1988 Holy Wells and Ancient Crosses of Norfolk and Suffolk notes as in West Newton called Pilgrim’s Well, which tradition suggests was used by pilgrims on the way to Walsingham. The field contained the remains of a deserted village the street plan of which apparently can still be seen in the snow
A connection with a most likely Marian well cult can be found at the Augustinian priory of St. Mary at Flitcham with Appleton. From the early fourteenth century the priory was usually referred to as St. Mary ad fontes, St. Mary de fontibus or St. Mary at the Welle.
Who built it?
William White, History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk (1845) may provide one suggestion a Rev. W. Allen, of Narborough, who he records ‘who performs divine service in the ruins once a year.’ With such an interest in continuing services in the ruined church it would suggest that he would have had an interest in restoring the local holy well if only to provide clean water for those services. Sadly nothing can be found to validate this claim but it makes a likely person. Landowners would have to be involved and it is known that AJ Humbert was interested in improving the area. Again nothing can be located to suggest so. As Bromefield would perhaps only have heard of extant and interesting wells – ie not boggy holes – it suggests that there was some structure at the time of his work.
The final solution is a possibly obvious one is King Edward VII. One of his friends wrote after his death in 1910:
“Up to the last year of his life he was continually improving his domain, repairing churches, spending money on the place in one way or another.”
Could the monarch have improved the spring? Sadly, the local parish council and Sandringham estate appear to have drawn a blank when I enquired.
However, the enigmatic origins lend itself to this little known and undoubtedly best of the county’s holy wells.
In search of the healing and ancient wells and springs of Folkestone part two – Foord’s chalybeate spring
In this second post on the town’s noted water supplies we turn to its chalybeate spring. Like many of the towns, Folkestone made a bid to develop into a spa town. In the town a Chalybeate Spring is noted by Seymour in his 1776 Survey of Kent:
“At a place called Foord, a quarter of a mile distant west from Folkestone, is a fine salubrious spring of water, which has all the virtue and efficacy of the chalybeate being impregnated with iron in a degree equal to the Tunbridge Water. It has been proved with success by Dr Gill, operates by urine and perspiration, and is of infinite service in cold chronic distemper, weakness, and bad digestions.”
He describes it as:
“CHALYBEATE SPRING which although uninviting in appearance from its ferruginous aspect is much resorted to in cases of stomach affection and nervous debility after a long illness The component parts of this water are Carbonic Muriatic and Sulphuric Acids Soda Lime Magnesia and Iron which occur in the following order Carbonate of Soda, Carbonate of lime, Muriate of Soda Carbonate of Soda Carbonate of Lime, Muriate of Soda, Muriate of Lime, Sulphate of Soda, Carbonate of Iron The water is principally alkaline from Carbonate of Soda the quantity of Muriate is small The charge for drinking it is very moderate.”
In L. Fussel’s 1818 Journey round the Coast of Kent:
“such an accidental circumstance that which first brought Tunbridge wells into repute is only wanting to give celebrity to the chalybeate water at Foord, and make the fortunes of Mr Holmes, a very civil, attentive and intelligent master of the Red Cow near the spot.”
As noted thus in 1815, the said Red Cow landlord, William Holmes, obtained a license to bottle and sell its waters. Seymour (1776) suggests that the site could be made a valuable spa, suggesting suitable accommodation at a Mr. James Bateman’s White Hart Inn.. Yet, whether he was basing his views on any tradition. It was said that the best time to drink the water would be in the morning, taking a further two or three glasses through the day. It was often mixed with milk or even brandy to make it more palatable!
Amongst the diseases Foord’s water could cure were:
“diarrhoea, gout, rheumatism, flatulence, gout, rheumatism, scurvy, blood fluxes, dysentery, bleeding of piles, lowness of spirits, weakness of the nerves, want of appetite, indigestion, habitual colic, vomiting, jaundice, dropsy, nephritic disorders, asthma and scorbutick cases”.
By 1850 a mock castle had been built as a pump room by Mr J G Breach of Pavilion Hotel, but the lack of baths, and entertainers and the rise of sea bathing lead to its demise! Sadly he did not make his fortune, moved on, but the Silver Spring Mineral Water Company, did move to Foord Road in the 1890’s., remembered by a plaque over what was Crown European Upholstery, now closed itself. Indeed, when Dr Augustus Granville was researching for his 1841 The Spas of England and Principle Sea Bathing places he missed it
The spring has long gone, a row called Chalybeate row being built on the site, until 2012 a pub named after the Mock Castle survived to remember Folkestone’s attempt to become a spa town’ but this too has gone!
As a prelude to next year’s theme on votive offerings at holy and healing wells with a special focus on rag wells, for this abecedary entry W I have picked Wales and want to focus on rag wells in the country as an early prelude to my theme next year which is on rag or more often called cloottie wells.
The earliest confirmed reference is an English one of 1600 and evidence from Wales of their existence comes much later as nearly 300 years after the first accounts. What are we to make of this?
An account by Professor Rhys in Folklore for September, 1892 is the easiest reference and he is given the following information, said to be ‘lately sent to him by a friend, about a Glamorganshire holy well situated between Coychurch and Bridgeendd’ he notes.:—
“people suffering from any malady to dip a rag in the water, and bathe the affected part. The rag is then placed on a tree close to the well. When I passed it, about three years ago, there were hundreds of these shreds covering the tree, and some had evidently been placed there very recently.”
He was further informed that :
“People suffering from rheumatism. They bathe the part affected with water, and afterwards tie a piece of rag to the tree which overhangs the well. The rag is not put in the water at all, but is only put on the tree for luck. It is a stunted but very old tree, and is simply covered with rags.”
An interesting variant of the custom is recorded at Ffynnon Eilian (St. Elian’s Well), near Abergele in Denbighshire. Here Professor Rhys was informed by Mrs. Evans, the late wife of Canon Silvan Evans, who states that:
“some bushes near the well had once been covered with bits of rag left by those who frequented it. The rags used to be tied to the bushes by means of wool-not woollen yarn, but wool in its natural state. Corks with pins stuck in them were floating in the well when Mrs. Evans visited it, though the rags had apparently disappeared from the bushes.”
This may have been to do with the unfavourable nature of the well which was renowned as a cursing well. Recently restored it rags have yet to re-appear there!
Finally he records Ffynnon Cefn Lleithfan, or Well of the Lleithfan Ridge, on the eastern slope of Mynydd y Rhiw, in the parish of Bryncroes, in the west of Caernarvonshire, here:
“The wart is to be bathed at the well with a rag or clout, which has grease on it. The clout must then be carefully concealed beneath the stone at the mouth of the well.”
Which is yet again another variant possibly to do with the paucity of trees in the area
In an article in the Cardiff Naturalists Society (1935) by Aileen Fox, entitled “A Rag Well near Llancarfan” the spring called the Inflammation Spring she states that:
“When I first visited the spring in August, 1935, 3 old rags – pieces of dish cloth and calico – and a piece of brown wool were tied on overhanging branches by the source.”
And records that:
“The treatment described by Mrs Williams consisted in using the water for drinking to the exclusion of all other fluids, in applying mud from the source as a plaster on the affected parts, and in tying a rag, preferably from the underclothing, by the well.”
Distribution of the rag wells in the county is spread out with a small cluster in the south. Research and survey work indicates that there are eight traditional sites of which only three have a continued tradition, although it is difficult to describe or define the presence of rags there as continued or revived tradition without further research. Add to this only three sites which have no tradition but have no become rag wells. This latter category itself is a puzzle to define.
A recent visit to the atmospheric St. Pedr’s Well at Caswell Bay on the Gower did reveal rags and objects hanging from trees. However, the more traditional appearing was St. Teilo’s Well, Llandilo in Pembrokeshire where trees beside the pool filled by the spring were adorned with white and red fabrics of cloth and as such perhaps appears closer to the tradition than other sites such as St Anne’s Well, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, where a tree is adorned with a multitude of objects when it is not actively cleared up by local people. Why rags and objects should appear at St Tegla’s Well, Llandega, Denbighshire, or the Holy Well, Pileth, Powys or Patrishow’s holy well, Llanlawer is unclear. As sites which have received publicity in the earth mysteries and pagan press these rank pretty high. However, it is interesting to note that they are all close to the English border too. The origins of the custom in Wales similarly is difficult to determine. The widespread nature of the custom and it variant usage suggests possibly a wider distribution and the sites remaining are bar the remnants or that it arose individually in a number of places.
A rather uninspiring pond in a field outside of Evesham is the site of perhaps one of the most fascinating healing springs in England.
A saintly Simon de Montfort?
Much is written of Simon de Montfort but it short his establishment of two parliaments during his interloping coup against Henry II and short rule he is seen as the father of parliamentary democracy. His death at the Battle of Evesham, which saw the rightful monarchy restored, resulted after miracles were reported at his shrine, to be an politico-religious saint and pilgrimages occurred through the late 1200s. Amongst the cures at his tomb Gunnell of Ketton’s son Harry who took dust from it to cure his paralysis and a hen from Sulgrave, Northants was revived to life!
The miraculous creation of a spring
Not unsurprisingly, what with the evocation of Simon and his miracles at the tomb, attention would turn to the site of his demise or in the eyes of his followers ‘martyrdom’. In the 1840 Halliwell translation of the circa 1280 The Miracles of Simon de Montfort, an account records how a Piers de Saltmarsh in 1274 was travelling in the retinue of William Beauchamp of Elmley, one of the Kings’ supporters over the site of the Battle of Evesham. This is said to have happened before June 1266 it is said. Piers doubted Simon’s saintliness and called on him to prove it by providing them, miraculously, with living waters, Piers then:
“seized a horse’s shoulder blade, and began to dig. God works wonders! Out of that dusty hard ground there shot up a spring of sweet water, high as the hills”.
An interesting precursor to this would appear have to been recorded by William rector of Warrington who is said to have taken away earth from the site of the earl’s death and was able to have a dying man by mixing this with water.
Of course the discovery of the spring need not be that miraculous as William Tindal noted in 1794 the spring was normally dry in summer and was just a depression in the ground. Of course both William and Piers were not local and thus would not be familiar with any intermittent spring in the area.
Miracles and cures at the well
Halliwell (1840) again tells how a‘ contemporary authority’ in the 1270s that:
“some say that there have been many miracles at his tomb, and that on the spot where he was killed there is now an excellent spring which has healed those suffering from all kinds of sickness; but nobody dares tell the world of this, for fear of the King and his party”.
The Miracles of Simon de Montfort tell how between 1274 and 1279 record ten miracles of healing from ‘the Earl Simon’s well’ Alice of Burton Overy Leicestershire merely kept vigil and was cured. However most cures were from drinking or washing themselves in water which was brought to them; water was taken as far as Oxfordshire, Thanet, Dunstable and London. Such were Stephen Aungevin’s young son at Dunstable Bedfordshire, Alexander of Suffolk, a citizen of London although some immobile recipients lived nearer such as Harry Chaunteler of Bretforton and a woman at Elmley Castle. Of her a supplementary miracle is recorded. . She is said to have journeyed with a jug to fill it with the miraculous water for her mistress. However, at the time there was an attempt to stem the cult and visitors to the well. As such some soldiers sent to prevent people visiting stopped her and when they looked inside the jug saw only beer and let her pass. However by the time she gave it to her mistress at Elmley, it contained water!
Certainly large numbers appear to have attended the site, when Ralph of Boklande of Thanet bathed his leg in the well it is said that he was cured:
“in the site of many people.”
It is recorded that people were even carried in carts from as far away as Leicestershire and even London. A ritual was established in which they would drink at the well, and either worship there or at Evesham Abbey. Even animals were cured A winded palfrey ( a docile horse), being rode by the Countess of Gloucester being cured there. The Miracles recording:
“The Countess of Gloucester had a palfrey that had been broken-winded for two years. In returning from Evesham to Tewkesbury, the horse having drunk of the Earl’s Well and having had its head and face washed in the water, recovered of this. The Countess and all her company are witnesses”,
The 1910 Evesham Journal reports that:
“until a very little time ago… there was a belief that this water was very efficacious for weak eyes… People often visited the spring and took water away with them to bathe their eyes’
The establishment of a chapel
Understandably, the well attracted considerable trade and obviously money. Alms being given at the spring by a follower of Simon, Robert de Vere, the Earl of Oxford around either 1273 or 1279.
Despite a decline in the cult by the 1280s the well’s famed did not die with it and it appease to have survived long after it with a chapel. In 1448 The Brut by Richard Fox, a monk of St Albans it is recorded:
“where the battle and murder was is now a well, and grete elmes stande about the well; there is over the well an hovel of stone (a canopy), and a crucifix and Mary and John”.
This appeared to suggest that something of a wayside cross or Calvary was present there but no other authority records it and there is certainly not trace. By 1457 the site was called Battle Well and in that year Abbot John Wickham’s receiver accounted for the abbots expenditure of one penny there. A flyleaf inscription in a missal of 1489 indicates that:
‘to the chapel of le Battell Welle’.
After the Reformation
The chapel appears to have continued until the Reformation, and the Battle well was still remembers long after. In 1702 a man was fined for ‘nuisance at Battle well’ suggesting either he was disturbing those visiting the site or annoying the landowner in attempting to gain access.
Richard Pococke records in his 1757 Travels records:
‘I walk’d near a measured mile to Battle Wells, in the northern road… They say the battle was in the road…and they told me that they found in the road a vault full of bones, which formerly might be under some chapel’.
William Tindal in their 1794, The History and Antiquities of the Abbey and Borough of Evesham records:
‘a little nearer the town, on the same side, is the spot called Battle-well’,
Nathan Izod names and precisely marks it on his 1827 map and it appears on the 1886 OS map as well. It then lay 120 yards west of the road about 200 yards northwest of the mile post and about 145 yards southwest of the Worcester road junction. Richardson (1927) in their Wells and springs of Worcestershire identifies it as
“simply a field-pond situate at the head of a valley that runs down to the River Avon.”
Cox in his translation of the Chronicle of Evesham Abbey provides a map, and says that:
‘examination of the site in 1961… confirmed that Battlewell at present derives its water from land-drainage, and often dries up completely in Summer. In a rainy season, however, it may be filled’.
As D.C. Cox in their Battle of Evesham a new account records:
“The apparent continuity of the name Battle well from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth and the consistency of the early written references, both with each other and with the nineteenth century maps, make it reasonable to suppose that the present Battle well is the fifteenth century one.”
However they cautiously note:
“Earl Simon’s well, according to the thirteenth century collection of Montfortian miracle stories, lay near the Evesham -Kenilworth road at the top of the hill which the battle was fought. That it was the later and present Battle well cannot be proved but cannot easily be doubted.”
Today one can trace this site quite easily although it is unclear of access rights. The site is free to observe during the annual blessing at the well each August however, A simple spring fed pool but one where history, folklore and belief are intrinsically intertwined.
The seaside Kent town of Folkestone has three notable water sites The first is perhaps the commonest picture postcard available and there are several versions as can be seen here. This is surprising as the site is not particularly well known or celebrated. Indeed its’ provenance may be perhaps a little dubious. This is the Holy Well or St. Thomas’s Well (TR 221 382) is. Its first description by S. J. Mackie in their 1856 Handbook of Folkestone gives the greatest detail and describes the scene around the well:
“Whence we look down its sheep trodden sides into the deep dell, where, sheltered by the rank rushes lie the dark un-ruffled waters of Holy Well. Do these raise tracings on the grass cover the remains of some lonely hermitage. The Country people tell you something about the pilgrims to Becket’s Shrine, it is called also St. Thomas’s Well, resting here on their way to Canterbury.”
Watt (1917) in discussion of the town notes in Canterbury Pilgrims and their ways:
“..also on the hills above it we have St. Thomas’s Well, but such are scattered all over the district.”
Samuel J Mackie records in 1856 A description and historical account of Folkestone
“Sheltered by the rank rushes lie the dark waters of Holy Well Do those raised tracings in the grass cover the remains of some hermitage The country people tell you about the pilgrims to Becket’s shrine it is called St Thomas’s Well resting here on their way to Canterbury I confess it seems to me slightly out of road but there it is and all I can tell about it is there is nothing now to be told.”
In the 1865 an illustrated hand-book to Folkestone and its picturesque neighbourhood by H Stock
“A short distance from this to the immediately at the bottom of Sugar Loaf Hill a remarkable spring of beautiful water known as Well or St Thomas’s Well Why so called saith not By some it is thought that it was resting place of the pious souls who worshipped shrine at Canterbury but how those worthies here cannot be conjectured It is now used as sheepwash”.
This latter point would explain the odd concrete structure, now lost, seen in some postcards.
In the 1925 Wonderful Britain by John Alexander Hammerton he noted:
“Folkestone’s Holy Well, sometimes called St. Thomas’s well…the old highway to Canterbury runs close by and tradition says that pilgrims to the shrine of St Thomas a Becket used to drink here and that Henry II himself did so when he went to do penance at the Cathedral whose Archbishop he had murdered and martyred.”
When visiting in the 1990s the information board states that the name holy well is a modern name for these springs, and 80 years ago one was called St. Thomas’s Well but the account above disagrees. There appears to be some confusion over the site. Consequently it is difficult to pinpoint the exact site. I was informed by a local in his late 60s that, when he was a boy, the second now dry spring was called Holy Well. The spring arose in a deep gully, now covered with bramble and heavily eroded at the source. However, continuing the path around to the base of the hill, one comes across a large pool, fed by all the springs. This is the site called the Holy Well on an early 1900s postcard. So perhaps there were two sites after all?
When William Parsons of the excellent British Pilgrimage Trust visited the site was largely overgrown and derelict as can be seen here in 2016, he repairing it with some stones found around which may have been part of the original structure.
Next time we shall be exploring Folkestone’s attempt to develop a spa.