Outside the town of Mogenstrup is one of the most famed holy wells of Denmark. A holy well dedicated to a saint whose following spread across the Danish world, a saint still remembered from Orkney’s to Denmark – St Magnus or Mogens, a Danish Royal Martyr. Local traditions believes that the well was a pagan sacrifice site taken over by the early church and dedicated to the saint. When this re-dedication was done is unclear but it was certainly since 1292 as the area around has been called Magnus torp since.
The best time to visit the well was Midsummer by the sick and weak. There were certain ceremonies which had to be adhered to, which ensure the water’s best powers were bestowed, such as the giving of swords, jewellery or even animals. When the church was established they encouraged the giving of money into a box , a block and hence called block money, in the church. This paid for the church, the poor and those who had to guard the spring. It is said that its waters were particularly officious at midnight and that pilgrims were so keen to take its waters that fights would occur. On is recorded between two women in 1670 from Næstved in 1670 who fought to reach the spring first and the fight resulted in a law suit of the 1st July 1670.
Another tradition to ensure that the water was effective was that the applicant should approach the well in silence. Thus, they must not greet people once they had been to the spring, avoid again meeting anyone on a return visit. Of course you could collect water for someone else but it must not be sampled on the journey back or else its power would be lost. It was also thought that the water flowed greatest and was more efficacious at midnight and bowing three times against the sun was also recommended.
The water could be used for internal diseases including cancer, insanity and mental illnesses, or external one which require the area being rubbed. In the donation of money it is said that odd money was needed for external diseases but also rags were would be used where the affected area would be rubbed or tied to and then left at the site. There are accounts of those suffering from arthritis donating their crutches to the church as firewood! Unlike British clouts it is said that the clothes were buried as local people would steal them or burn. Local accounts tell sometimes people came had their sight restored or even their life by virtue of the saint!
The Reformation here too had an impact and in 1536 there are records of the clergy trying to prevent people access the site. However, over a hundred years later, accounts of 1681-86 record that the weak and crippled were still visiting the spring donating 3-5 shillings. There were said to be several thousand at midsummer.
A turnpike was established in 1824 through the woods, the outflow was channelled into a fountain with a lion’s head which itself was restored by 1862 by the owner of a local brewery obviously tapping the water. However, the move was to have a negative impact on the supposed powers of the spring and numbers of visitors dropped.
The holy well still survives arising in a circular basin whose overfull continues to the lion’s head, however the vast concourse of pilgrims have long gone.
Down a lane away from the village in quiet solitude is St Ethelbert’s church at Marden. It is a church associated with a saintly legend and a location of particular interest for anyone concerned in water lore; for two pieces of local legend are recorded both with familiar motifs. Perhaps the most familiar one is associated with the strange find in a carpeted room to the left of the entrance. Here sadly dry is St. Ethelbert’s Well. The earliest record is John Duncombe 1804 Collections for a History of Herefordshire
“At the west end of the nave, defended by circular stonework, is a well about ten inches in diameter, about four feet below the pavement of the church, aspring supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of Ethelbert was first interred…. This spring is said to have been held in great veneration from the circumstance of the water retaining its purity, when overflowed by the stream of the Lugg, however muddy or impure.”
Charles Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells also records:
“MARDEN: ST. ETHELBERT’S WELL. THERE is a well in the church of Marden, Herefordshire. It is near the west end of the nave, defended by circular stone-work, about ten inches in diameter, and enclosing a spring, supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of King Ethelbert was first interred, and is called St. Ethelbert’s Well (Notes and Queries, 3 S., viii. 235).”
Jonathan Sant in his 1994 The Healing Wells of Herefordshire notes:
“Formerly to be seen at the west end of the nave, St. Ethelbert’s Well has recently been swallowed up by an extended vestry where it can now be seen incongruously surrounded by carpeted floor. The octagonal stone well-top is apparently late Victorian but the square top within the shaft below is doubtless older. Needless to say, the table which has been built over it is very modern and prevents small children from falling down the well”
The well is much as Sant describes although there have been recent talks of an improvement to make a more appropriate structure although that could possibly ruin this strange well. He records water in it as well, it was dry when I examined it in April of this year.
What is particularly strange is that once the wooden lid is removed this is a deep shaft well. Very few holy wells are such deep shafts, the majority being shallow springheads. Perhaps this suggests that this could as Sant suggests provide pure water even when the river was in flood. Its depth may also suggest a great age indicating how the ground level has risen as the years have built up more sediment. The church guide suggests it had a healing tradition but I am unable to find their source, similarly they claim the well and church were a place of pilgrim, likely but again no written evidence. Current pilgrims have thrown coins in the well as can be seen.
The legend of St Ethelbert’ or Æthelberht’s Well
Overlooking the village of Marden are the scant remains of Sutton Walls now a tree covered hillfort. Here local tradition record was the royal vill or sort of temporary villa of the great Offa of Mercia the scene of the saint’s murder.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he was captured whilst visiting his bride to be Ælfthyth. Richard of Cirencester records that Offa’s queen Cynethryth convinced Offa that Æthelberht should be killed, although there is no evidence why. Although it was likely political as Æthelberht was King of the Angles and Mercia had domination over East Anglia and would be keen to stop any possible claimant under control.
One legend tells that he sat upon a chair with no seat a trap door of sorts, the whole being covered by a cloth and that he fell down the hole, a deep pit, his head being removed to ensure that he was dead. Another tells how he was smothered in his bed clothes. All accounts record his beheading, but some say that this was done in Offa’s presence. The body being hastily buried with the head beside the river below.
Discovery of the body and formation of the well
The legend is told in a panel upon the 2008 shrine to the saint in Hereford Cathedral but it is absent in the first version of the story which is restricted to the shaft of light subsequent tellings have mentioned the spring.
Issues with the legend
Considering the well head’s location and the church’s remote location it is more than likely that the church was placed here because of the well. However, does this make the well date from St. Ethelbert? Although, one would not miss to pour water upon the county’s famed legend, there are concerns that it might.
Hagiographers will notice that the religious features his martyrdom closely resemble that associated with the legend of St. Kenelm. This is best summarised by Edith Rickert’s 1905 article The Old English Offa Saga. II in Modern Philology Vol. 2, No. 3:
“At this point, however, mention must be made of another legend, that of St. Kenelm, which shows a curious relationship to the story of Ethelbert. The resemblances are these: a) Each saint, by the ambition and malice of a wicked kinswoman, was treacherously lured to his death and beheaded.’ b) The murderess in each case perished miserably by super natural intervention.2 c) Each saint had divine foreknowledge of his death in a dream or vision in which a beautiful tree was cut down and he himself was turned into a bird and flew up a column of light to heaven.”
Overall it suggests perhaps that the St. Ethelbert legend was a transfer from St. Kenelm (or vica versa) but if it was a concoction why? The other legend that of the Mermaid may give us a suggestion why….but we can discuss this in a future post.
“Just over the boundary, in the parish of Wilcote, is an old well of beautiful clear water, surrounded by a wall, with stone steps going down to it. It is called the Lady’s Well, and on Palm Sunday the girls go there and take bottles with Spanish juice (liquorice), fill the bottles, walk round the well”
Violet Mason, SCRAPS OF ENGLISH FOLKLORE, XIX. Oxfordshire Folklore, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1929), pp. 374-384
My first visit to the Lady or Lady’s Well at Fincote was on a misty cold December walking down from the village I was struck by the old gnarled elms which lined the way to the well and the feel of an ancient processional route to it. Back then in the 90s I was unaware of the folk customs associated with it as hinted above.
The well itself is a small affair enclosed as stated above in a high wall. The gate was locked and so sadly I could not access the water directly. However, it followed from beneath the wall and nearby was what appeared to be a trough or perhaps even a bath half sunk into the ground. It is known that the water was used by Wilcote Grange for water and filled a series of ponds nearby now gone. Interestingly there is a Bridewell Farm nearby so was the well originally dedicated to St. Bridget or the pagan Bride? What the well lacks in structure is made up by its association with the curious custom noted above which existed until recently and may still do locally. On the Finstock Local History website it is recorded:
“Mrs. Ivy Pratley, describes the making of the Spanish Water. “On the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday, we children would crush humbug sweets and white peppermints together and to this we would add some pieces of chopped liquorice stick, the mixture was then added to a bottle of water and we would sit around the room shaking the bottles until it had dissolved”.
The correspondent notes that:
“This bottle of liquid was drunk the following day while walking to Ladywell. They also carried with them, in a paper bag, some of the dry mixture, which was mixed with water from the well to drink on the way home. Early on Sunday afternoon the walkers would set off, one group using the footpath by the Plough Inn and another group near the top of High Street using the path to the left of the road about 50 yards east of Gadding Well. The groups then merged to follow the path through Wilcote Field Longcut or the Longcut as it was known locally. Most of the girls were given a new straw hat for the occasion and these were filled with primroses and voilets on the way through Sumteths Copse. They then crossed the field to the front of Wilcote Manor and followed a route past St. Peter’s Church to the Ash Avenue which leads directly to Ladywell.”
The custom was still current when Violet Mason in 1929 recorded it but little beknown to her it was soon to disappear. The Finstock Local History society record that it died out at the outbreak of war in 1939. However, Janet Bord in her excellent Holy Wells in Britain a guide (2008) received correspondence which suggests later. She notes:
“The one-time vicar of Wilcote, J.C.S Nias, informed me that when he first went there in 1956, ‘numerous members of county families used to go to that well in Palm Sunday with jam jars containing crushed peppermint and (I believe) liquorish.”
Interesting the vicar then goes on to suggest what might have been the original reason for the Spanish water:
“they pour water from the well on to this mixture which, they believed, would then be a specific for certain ailments during the following year.”
Another correspondent noted:
“Local historian Margaret Rogers noted in a letter to me in 1984 that ‘local people do not any longer visit it on Palm Sunday’ she added; Occasionally one elderly lady visits it, but way back in 1934 there used of a substantial number of people going down on lam Sunday to make liquorice water.”
Bord’s correspondent may give another reason for the custom’s demise:
“Quite a few elderly members of the village remember with indignation that they did not get Sunday school stamps for going down there.”
Now that’s a way to kill a custom off! Perhaps some people still make their private pilgrimage but whatever there is something otherworldly about the Lady Well. It’s a recommended walk.
Lying in a public park in a small town in Cheshire is a curiously named holy well. My first attempt to find the site in the 1990s was unsuccessful but it is reassuring that a return in 2014 not only found the park it lies in being much improved but now there were signposts to the well.
The Synagogue Well is perhaps uniquely named in the country a point I shall refer to later. Charles Hope in his 1893 “notes:
“The Synagogue Well, evidently one of great antiquity, and, before an attempt was made to improve it, of most picturesque appearance, is in the grounds of Park Place, Frodsham, late belonging to Joseph Stubs, Esq.”
Hope’s claim that it was of great antiquity however does not appear to easy to substantiate. However it certainly attracted antiquarian interest, William Beaumont in his 1888 An Account of the Ancient Town of Frodsham in Cheshire records in comparison to a similar site in the county:
“Such a fount there is at Frodsham, called ‘The Synagogue Well,’ which sends forth waters as copious and as limpid as that once frequented by Numa. It seems as if such a fount was necessary near an ancient castle; for as this fount rises close to the site of Frodsham Castle, so at the foot of Beeston Castle there is a similar spring. They both spring from the living rock, and both have a large square stone basin to receive the surplus water as it flows away.”
A poet’s romantic origin
In an unusual feature for a holy well, the site was immortalized in a poem which records:
“THE SYNAGOGUE WELL
The Roman, in his toilsome march, Disdainful viewed this humble spot, And thought not of Egeria’s fount And Numa’s grot.
No altar crowned the margin green, No dedication marked the stone; The warrior quaffed the living stream And hasten’d on.
Then was upreared the Norman keep, Where from the vale the uplands swell But, unobserved, in crystal jets The waters fell.
In conquering Edward’s reign of pride, Gay streamed his flag from Frodsham’s tower, But saw no step approach the wild And sylvan bower ;
Till once, when Mersey’s silvery tides Were reddening with the beams of morn, There stood beside the fountain clear A man forlorn;
And, as his weary limbs he lav’d In its cool waters, you might trace That he was of the wand’ring tribe Of Israel’s race.
With pious care, to guard the spring, A masonry compact he made, And all around its glistening verge Fresh flowers he laid.
“God of my fathers!” he exclaimed, Beheld of old in Horeb’s mount, Who gav’st my sires Bethesda’s pool And Siloa’s fount,
Whose welcome streams, as erst of yore, To Judah’s pilgrims never fail, Tho’ exil’d far from Jordan’s banks And Kedron’s Vale
Grant that when yonder frowning walls, With tower and keep are crush’d and gone; The stones the Hebrew raised may last, And from his Well the strengthening spring May still flow on! “
A Jewish Mikveh, consonantal drift or folly bath?
Despite the poet’s assertion that “he was of the wand’ring tribe, Of Israel’s race.” and that: “The stones the Hebrew raised may last” relics of Britain’s Jewish heritage are scant and any site associated with them historically is of course of great interest and importance. But is Frodsham Castle’s an example? Such baths have been uncovered which were originally ritual baths called Mikveh or Mikvah was this site one? It might be convenient to associate the site with a Jewish community attached to Frodsham Castle. However, there no evidence of a community ever being located there or in the more likely medieval Chester.
So where does the name come from? Beaumont (1888) records that:
“Some have suggested that Saint Agnes was its’ patron, and that thence it won its name.”
This belief is recorded on the current sign beside the well but the name itself is problematic. The majority of St. Agnes dedications appear to associated with late or spurious holy wells such as St. Agnes at Cothelstone where legends of love-lorn visits are linked – all Victorian romantic stuff. The clue to the origin of the well is again recorded by Beumont who states:
“The basin of that at Horsley is called a bath, and, as might be expected, the Synagogue well was also called, for once there was a curate at Frodsham who was an inveterate bather, and he resorted thither every morning and bathed in the well even when it was frozen over, and he had to break the ice before he could have his invigorating bath. But he was of a swimming family, and his father, Sir Lancelot Shadwell, Master of the Rolls, might often be seen leading his seven sons in a swim down the Thames.”
This suggests that the site was probably a plunge pool or cold bath folly. Indeed the steps down in one corner suggest this and the sandstone fabric does not look old enough to be anything of antiquity. Perhaps one of the bathers was Jewish at some point and a local joke developed? Unlikely.
Another option may be that the chamber was the water supply for the castle or great houses. Similar basins exist associated with castles such as Wollaton Hall’s, coincidentally called the Admiral’s Bath due a local resident bathing in it, despite it being a water supply at the time!
Perhaps now the site is no longer being used a receptacle for garden waste, more research may be done to reveal the details.
“It could have been Illmington Spa not Leamington Spa” Newfoundwell, the forgotten chalybeate spring of Warwickshire
Leamington Spa is a well-known spa town, although its spa heritage is not capitalised much, however if only by a twist of fate or geography that the main spa town would be Leamington and not Ilmington spa. For not far from the Gloucestershire border is the village of Ilmington, a quiet sleepy village but once hopes were high for the settlement when in 1681 a plan was made to capitalise on a chalybeate spring found in the parish. Local legend tells that the Lord of the Manor, Henry Lord Capel, saw a local woman washing her eyes in the water of the spring and asked why. She said they eased her eyes and as a result he then contacted local physicians. It was publicised by Oxford Physicians Samuel Derham and William Cole. In their Hydrologia Philosophica or An Account of ILMINGTON WATERS the author describes it great details the qualities of the emerging potential spa. He notes after a lengthy background:
“Now I shall proceed to Enquire, what are the Ingredients of Ilmington Spaw, first taking notice of its Colour, which is far more pale then Rock-spring water. With Syrup of Violets it would turn green, like Alkalizate Liquors with that syrup: with Galls, to a Purple; like Martial Vitrioline Waters: for Cuprous Vitrioline with Galls turn muddy with a very little Purple or Black; but of this more afterwards. Its body being of a thick muddy consistence, I weighed (in a very dry Season) a Pint of this Spaw-water against a Pint of ordinary Water, but the Spaw exceeded near half a Drachm. Another time after a wet Season and when the Ocre was fallen an old Pint pot of common Pump-water weighing 18 Ounces did equalize (and if either, did turn the Scales) the same quantity of the Spaw-wa∣ter: which may caution us from prefixing a determinate Weight to any Spring-water. Variety in the Weight of Waters may appear by comparing That Salt spring water of Droitwich with sweet springs, yea to him that compareth the Waters of several sweet springs together, For the Esurine salt many times being carried along with the water sliding through its secret Meanders or veins of the Earth; of which part insinuateth itself into, and part corroding occurrent bodies; it fretteth off fragments, such as fragmenta ferrea from Iron-stones, and particles from ordinary stones, which are carried along with the water, and lie latent to the naked eye in its pores, but by Distillation, Evaporation &c. will appear, Whence of necessity followeth a great variety in weight, according to the greater or less quantity of sabulum or fragments therein contained.”
He then notes about the mineral properties. He continues:
“Then I proceeded to enquire after the Mineral, with which this Spring was impregnated. And first I took about half a pint of new milk, upon which in a Porringer I poured this water fresh from the Spring-head, but could not discern any coagulation; yea, for anything did appear, this mixture differed not from a mixture of milk and ordinary spring water. After four miles carriage of the water, when the reddish Ocre began to subside, I poured upon warm milk from the cow a pretty quantity of this water, and let it stand at least twelve hours; but neither in this mixture, nor in milk and this Spaw-water boiled together, did any Coagulum appear. Hence I began to suspect, that its brackish taste was not from an acid Salt; therefore on this spring-water I instilled some oyl of Tartar, but upon the instillation, and the standing of the water all night, a very small curdling did ensue; only the mixture looked more white than the Spaw-water itself, which alteration of colour proceeded from the oyl of Tartar. Whereupon I concluded, that no Acid salt was here predominant, yea rather as such, scarce discernable in this Spring; it being, as I shall hereafter prove, far nearer to an Alkali than to an Acid salt.”
After trying with galls, a common method of testing mineral waters, the author notes:
“Now considering the small quantity of Galls, with which a Pint of water was thus tinged, I believe we may compare our new found Spaw (in this particular) with any of the English Medicinal waters, yea with the German Spaws so much in request.”
One of the important aspects of promoting a new potential spa was to compare it to well-known others. The author notes:
“Besides, Aluminous Springs are purgative, witness the Scarbrough Spaw, Epsom and Barnet Waters, &c. but this near Ilmington worketh most what by Urine. Yea perhaps (and truly) I might conclude, That this Spaw in respect of its mineral ingredients worketh not by Siedge. I know it may be objected, That some persons drinking of this water do there upon find a loosness, perhaps to the number of four or five stools or more, To which I might answer, That any simple Spring-water drank in a large quantity, will purge by its own weight: for as it lyeth heavy upon the stomach and intestines it oppresseth Nature, whence the Peristaltick motion is excited to expell that which infests and is burdensome; and if the water doth much oppress the sto∣mach before it pass through the Pylorus, vomiting is the effect according to Dr. Willis. Besides that, Alum is an Acid, as I have al∣ready proved, and also is a Cathartick; both which properties are not to be found in this Spaw, comparatively more than in ordinary Spring-water. I observed also, that the Excrements of those that drank this water were turned blackish, which is a consequent to the taking of Chalibeat Medicines, but not to the drinking of Aluminous waters. But observing this Water after its being exposed to the open air for some time, either stagnating at the Spring-head, or else as it is set in open vessels hath a blewish Cremor swimming on the top or surface of the Water, much resembling waters that stand long upon sulphureous bogs; I began to enquire, whe∣ther this might not be a Sulphureous Spring, like that at Knarsbrough, &c. By an Analysis of this Water into its Principles, not one grain of combustible Sulphur is to be found.”
The new spa begun to popular, it was described by William Dugdale in his 1730 Antiquities of Warwickshire as:
“much frequented’ and of particular value for the treatment of ‘scrophulous and leprous cases”.
However, it would look like the visitors were not enough. The site attracted no well-known visitors, no royalty, no patronage of note and so within the same century the well fell out of favour. It went largely out of use about the time of the enclosure of the common fields in 1781. The Well House built to provide shelter for the users of the well, remained standing for another 80 years. Later the spring became a watering place for stock. In 1998 erosion of the bank of the pond revealed the worked stone. On recovery, it was found to be a sizeable fragment of the basin. This is now incorporated into a fountain a plaque on which reads:
“This is a fragment of a basin installed around 1682 by the Lord of the Manor, Lord Capel to collect water from the chalybeate spring known as Newfound Well. The spring (1/4 m NW of Ilmington on the path to Lower Larkstoke) was described by Dugdale (1730) as: “much frequented’ and of particular value for the treatment of ‘scrophulous and leprous cases”.
Today the site is a large oval shaped pool in fields above the village. Two plastic pipes in the western end of the pool pour copious amounts of water into it which flows beyond the path into a stream. On one side of the pond can be seen stone work which may be part of the bath house, if so it is unrecorded.
Standing on this remote quiet location it is difficult to imagine what the place could have been like if the spring had had more money poured into its development. One the county’s first spas, which ironically unlike its better known cousin still flows from its main source rather from a pipe!
Extracted from forthcoming Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire
In 1972 a curious sacred spring site was found which appeared to be out of place. It appeared to all to be a sacred holy well associated with those found with the nuragi commonly seen in Sardinia but this was deep in the heart of modern day Bulgaria at Garlo, in Pernik district.
The site is dug into the ground being dug into the eastern slope of a hill, in a valley site clearly selected because of its association with springs. An entrance to east side gives access to a 1 metre wide set of 24 stone stairs, of which the first nine are open to the elements. with a doomed roof and reached by thirteen stone steps down a seven metre corridor. The centre of the structure is a well with a depth of around five metres. The stairs led to a round circular chamber around four metres in diameter with a vaulted ceiling open to the elements with a circular hole. In the centre at the depth of 5 metres is a stone lined well.
Coincidence or connected communities?
Massimo Rassu in their I pozzi sacri in Sardegna e in Bulgaria compares the site with Funtana Coberta in Ballao Sardinia in its structure.
One other piece of evidence to suggest that the two sites share a joint or related origin comes from the proximity of the site to a temple to the Sun. This is curious again because it is hypothesized that the Sardinia pozzo such as Santa Cristina was so arranged in accordance to solar cycles such as the solstice. Was this well similarly organised? Carved symbols around the rocks now lost in undergrowth may have supported this view.
Professor Dimitrina Mitova-Dzhonova dated the pit around the 11th Century BC which would make it in line with those of Sardinia. Those we ask the question did the ancient Nuragic community spread beyond Sardinia or is it a coincidence with ancient civilizations coming to the same design?
One of the great things about holy well research is finding a site recorded in an old work, doing field work to find it – and then finding it!
I recently discovered a copy of Bygone water supplies, by J. Steele Elliott which I previously thought was an article and not a book. I had a photocopy of this but this was only of the text once I had opened the work I discovered that at the back of the work it was copiously illustrated with sepia photos of which a large number were of holy and healing wells. Which was a surprise and a useful tool for field work. How many still existed and how many if they survived looked the same?
Bedfordshire is a little covered county in holy and healing well research and Steele Elliot’s work is the only one to have covered the subject at all. Hope includes a number of sites, although one of these is actually in Huntingdonshire!
What is curious is the fact that the site is unrecorded beyond Steele Elliot’s work. There maybe two reasons for this one being the relative obscurity of the text, indeed although the Bord’s reference it in their Sacred Waters, this may be a second-hand reference. The site is absent from Jeremy Harte’s magnus opus on holy wells English Holy Wells a sourcebook
It is not that the site is recorded. An early record is in Oliver St.John Cooper’s Historical Account of Odell of 1787:
“Here is a great plenty of useful stone; lately discovered gravel; and several good springs, two of which have been reputed medicinal. One on the north-east, whose water has not been analyzed, yet well known to be mildly cathartic. That on the north-west has been so celebrated as to obtain the name of Holliwell for itself and two closes, through which it runs into the town”.
It is again mentioned in 1872-8 by William Marsh Harvey in his Hundred of Wiley. Eric Rayner’s Odell, the Hill of Woad from the ‘Bedfordshire Magazine’ in 1970 notes:
“Some of Odell’s water springs were reputed to have medicinal qualities; certainly one on the north-east was well known to be mildly purgative and one, which obtained the name of Holliwell, after supplying village Farm, used to flow into a trough by the roadside for the use of villagers.”
Yet despite these noted, no researchers appears to have looked into the survival or history of the site.
Looking for evidence
The first clue is that the spring is recorded on the north-east. Looking at the early OS maps failed to identify any well named holy, holliwell, holiwell or haliwell, but a spring was marked approximately to the north east on the old maps. Checking the modern map the well was still there and interestingly a footpath crossed close enough to access. Elliott Steele (1933) records that it lay between Village Farm and Great Wood, in significantly called Waterhouse Field, Grass Holiwell and Ploughed Holiwell fields adjoined it.
The photo shows a substantial stone structure but the clue to the locating the holy well and confirming the site was a large tree in the background. If that was still there that would help confirm that the spring and holliwell were the same.
Travelling across the footpath the tree was evident and a tree lined gully was apparent to the right. Interesting the field was being seeded with grass was this Grass Holiwell field? Could this be where the holy well was?
A substantial structure
Carefully veering off the footpath, apologies to the landowner but I was careful not to damage any emerging crops, it was evident that some sort of structure was present albeit overgrown. Going around and climbing down into the gully I was confronted by the structure shown in Elliot’s 1933 photo (I presume this when it was taken but the photos date from 1870 till this date). Much of it unchanged bar the lintel over the door had gone and the stones just above it. Peering inside it is clear that this was a well-built substantial structure. The water arose clear and of considerable depth in a square chamber it flowing from a shute at the bottom. At the bottom could be seen the remains of the lintel and the other stones.
The most curious feature was the arched niche at the back. What was this for? If it was to place buckets on it appeared too narrow and inconveniently placed as one would have to reach over some deep water to get to it. Its ornateness suggests it may have been built to hold religious objects but if so it would make it unique in the county and indeed these are rare features outside well known holy wells such as those in Cornwall.
Was this once then a significant site?
What was it dedicated to? The church gives no clues it’s to All Saints but there was an earlier church as the town was recorded as a Minster in 1220. As James Rattue records in his 1999 The Living Stream there is a strong correlation between Minster towns and holy wells. This would be more supporting evidence. The settlement itself has a considerable history having Roman, Danish and Saxon histories perhaps attracted to the copious supply on this spring. Odell was an important settlement post the Norman conquest and remains of a castle exist. It is possible that the well was constructed by the castle as their supply although there is a substantial well on the site called King John’s well. Of course the name could easily derive from Old English hol meaning ‘hollow’ but the versions of holli and halli suggest it is a genuine holy well.
It is good to see the well survives but clearly it needs some TLC, perhaps a local history group could raise funds. Now the Holliwell has been ‘rediscovered’ perhaps it could be preserved.
Search Staffordshire Past website and the photo below can be found St. Edith’s Well. The picture shows something which composes of a well chamber enclosed in a wicker fence having a thatched rectangular roof placed upon it. This structure was supposedly designed and built in the 1950s and indeed field investigators for the Department of Environment in 1958 noted:
“St Edith’s Well is a rectangular water-filled stone basin, 2.1 m by 1.5 m, apparently recently restored; a flight of steps descends into the water. It is covered by a modern openwork timber structure with a thatched roof. Coins are still thrown into this well and several were seen on the bottom.”
Tim Cockin in his 1992 article One country man to another in The Countryman records that the well house was built and thatched by a Tommy Brayne, the landlord of the village pub, in about 1950, with the encouragement of the people at the manor house. Today this is not the case. The site is well-known enough to find a place in Janet and Colin Bord’s seminal 1985 work Sacred Waters where they record:
“As it is on private land, permission to visit it should be sort by the nearby farm. The rectangular stone basin is covered by a thatched timber structure. The well was visited for eye problems and the King’s Evil, and visitors still throw coins into the water.”
Armed with this book during a visit in the 1990s, I did indeed visit the nearby farm and was greeted by a ‘why would you want to visit that then’ response. However, I was granted access and directed across the fields. Nearby farm was clearly in relative terms! Despite the author’s note what I found was a well in a very sorry state.
Much of the superstructure from the photo had gone. Sadly, it was a rather dilapidated well structure, consisting of what was clearly, although I probably didn’t realise at the time, that fallen wooden structure laying over a brick-lined rectangular pool where steps into the structure could just be traced. It was still there but was not perhaps as spectacular as I expected.
The well is first mentioned in 1696 by Francis Plot in his History of Staffordshire he notes:
“many other waters…performe unaccountable Cures…the water of… St Ediths well… in the parish of Church Eyton.”
The well has some curious local traditions. One stating that the waters did not cause rusting. One I had not heard of before and possible being unique. As stated by the Bords it was good for eyes and the Kings Evil. The Victorian County History records a local legend notes that near this well was the site originally chosen for the church but that, but the stones brought there by mule-back by day were removed to the present site by night. This parish church was dedicated to St Edith by the nuns of Polesworth Abbey after it had been granted to them in about 1170, although whether this because a local St. Edith, rather than that associated with Kemsing Kent, or not is unclear. Interestingly according to Cockin (1992) records that the Bishop of Chester visited the well to bless it, and its water was used for baptisms by the family at the manor house.
Save St Edith’s Spring
The problem being clearly as I found in the 1990s this is not the best positioned holy well. In the middle of a field, several fields in from the road with no clear route to it and no holy well. I can more than understand the farmer not wanting hoards of curious onlookers crossing fields to have a look. However, that does not explain or justify the deplorable state of the well. According to Tim Prevett on Megalithic portal it has been allowed to fall derelict since the late 1980s despite pleas from the local Parish council and the site is slowly perhaps being forgotten. He states:
“Speaking to the church warden and flower arranger at St Edith’s they said the well had been largely been forgotten by the village, and were unsure in what condition it would be found. Also, permission needs to be gained to visit, I think from a bungalow just next to the canal side nearest the well, having left Church Eaton”
Speed forward another 20 years or so I have learnt things have not improved. The local concerns were sadly true; thanks to some locals I was provided with the opportunity of an update, although I note it is away from footpaths and on private land so I am not recommending you trespass. Much of the wood has been cleared, although some sections remain, but it is long beyond repair. The well chamber is still full of water, albeit sluggish and algae covered. Steps could be seen however. We must be thankful that its fabric remains but surely some compromise can be reached to save this notable Staffordshire well.
For more information on Staffordshire’s holy wells look out for
Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Staffordshire – forthcoming
Surrey is not the first county associated with holy wells, although James Rattue’s 2008 Holy Wells of Surrey makes it clear there are a number. Visions of the Virgin Mary are! So when we have a holy well and a vision of the Virgin Mary seen together it is an interesting site – but how old and genuine as a holy well is it? Especially curious as Rattue notes it appears in most surveys of holy wells.
Easily found following the sign from the church yard towards the river the well is certainly very picturesque, if a little muddy to get to. The well is unusual in being enclosed in two brick built chambers each covered by a metal lid. The water does not look particularly refreshing being rather stagnant and full of leaves. Over the well is an ornate wooden and tiled cover. A.J.A. Hollins in his 1933 A History of Dunsfold compiled from various sources gives an account of its repair and what was there beforehand:
“Until 1933 it consisted of two brick lined cisterns of uncertain date with wooden lids in a very poor state of repair. Now by the efforts of the Dunsfold Amateur Dramatic Society there has been erected over it a shelter or shrine of old oak with a shingled roof, and on one side of it is an exquisitely carved figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Child.”
Hollins’ (1933) gives some further details:
“The Holy Well lies on the bank of the river below the church and is approached by a short lane. The water which is singularly pure and cold even in the height of summer, is derived from two streams which have their origin somewhere in the hill on which the rectory stands. These unite just above the Well. From one of them at one time the water supply to the rectory was obtained, a one pony power circular pump being employed. With the advent of Company’s water this has long been derelict.”
A real holy well?
A. Judges (1901) in his Some West Surrey villages is also clear of its ancient origin and perhaps suggests a monastic association:
“As to one tradition connected with the spot, however, there can be no doubt. The well between the church and the river was for generations considered a holy well. Even to this day it is credited with medicinal properties, and people come for the water as a cure for sore eyes. The Rector, the Rev. W. H. Winn, favours the theory that it was on account of this well that the church was built on its present site, some little distance from the centre of the village. Water is scarce in the Weald, and this is the only spring-well rising to the surface of the ground which Mr. Winn knows of in the whole country. It never runs dry, and rises within 4 or 5 feet of the river, with which, however, it has no connection, except in the way of overflow. I ought, perhaps, to add here that the orchard near the mill was known as the Abbot’s Garden, and an old house on it, removed in late years, is supposed to have been connected with the church or some old monastery.”
Similarly, Hollins (1933) is unequivocal:
“Isn’t it significant, bearing in mind what has been said about the places usually chosen by the early peoples for their settlements, that the church is built near the river (which becomes the Arun before flowing into the sea at Littlehampton) practically beside the Holy Well, on one Roman road and very near another? As regards the well, its fame has spread down to modern times, and there is very little doubt but that it was sacred from the very earliest times….. it would form the site of a shrine for primitive worship in heathen days, and when the Christian era began, the builders of the first church would place it, as church builders frequently did, on an already sacred site, and merely substituted their ideas for those already existing. All the oldest churches in this country built on heathen sites have wells in or near them, for the Ancient Britons and their successors needed water for purification rites. The Well under Christianity would naturally have the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and this in turn would give the name to the Church.”
The usual claims, heathen worship, possibly Roman adoption by the early church, a theme we will return too in a moment.
Doubt was creeping in to Hollins’ (1933) work:
“The actual history of the Well is obscure. What can be stated is that from the very earliest times it was a sacred spot….There is a strong tradition that the Blessed Virgin has appeared at the Well, and one old belief is that she is always in residence in Dunsfold. The Well was an ideal spot for heathen worship, and when the Christian era began, the worship of St Mary at the Well would naturally follow, and thus give a lead to the church. But the Well was here first. By the very nature of its water, it can be said for certain that its use must have occasioned what no doubt would have seemed miraculous cures in the days when medicine was little understood.…..The shrine was dedicated by the Bishop of Guildford on Sept. 29th 1933.”
James Rattue (2008) hits the nail it on the head:
“This ought to be a clear-cut case of a holy well linked to a church, and, given its location, probably a comparatively late dedication like the Mary Wells we find in the Kentish Weald. But perhaps it’s even later than that. On the 1897 O.S map it appears merely as a tank, not even a well.”
Most holy wells are marked on old O.S maps if not present today, even those which have been missed off are still springs or wells, not tanks. A tank suggests a modern structure, a purely functional one, one established for farming not faith. Of course, not being mentioned on the map does not 100% go against it being a holy well but it does not give further support. Was it just a local mineral spring established in the age of spas? Hollins’s (1933) notes:
“Possessing notable qualities for the cure of diseases of the eyes – this has recently been confirmed by analysis.”
Hollins’s (1933) gives further details on its properties and its analysis:
“The water is very strongly impregnated with chlorine, a fact only recently discovered, when a noted Harley Street eye specialist took the matter up from a scientific point of view, and this is extremely interesting confirmation of the fact that the water has always been held to be marvellous for eye diseases.”
Indeed, the earliest reference to the site by Lewis Andre in his 1897 Dunsfold Church in the Surrey Arch Collections states simply:
“in the vale south of the church, there is a well, which is said to have been resorted to until recently for medicinal purposes.”
Although a mineral spring is very likely after all, Surrey had a large number of these and many were of nationwide fame. Maybe we shall never know.
Yet Hollins’s (1933) notes
“There are other holy wells in England — and in Surrey — but an old book in Cambridge University Library specifically mentions Dunsfold as being one of four in England.”
Have we all missed something? Neither Rattue, Harte or I have ever located this book which mentions specifically Dunsfold. If it could be found the authenticity of the well would not be in question.
A site of modern pilgrimage
Hollins (1933) notes that:
“Even in modern times it has been a place of pilgrimage, especially by Roman Catholics, and there is indication that this has always been the case. Roman Catholics have been heard to say that one day they will get the church back into their fold. Its dedication to St Mary and the presence of the Well are, of course, the reason for this. From London too even in recent times have pilgrimages been made.”
Whether these pilgrimages occur is unclear
Visions of the Virgin Mary
Judges (1901) notes that:
“A statement has been made that Dunsfold Church is a special object of pilgrimage by Roman Catholics. One ought, perhaps, to say in passing that the sole warrant for this assertion is the fact that the church is visited several times every year by parties of Roman priests from the seminary at Wonersh, and that on one occasion, some little time since, a numerous band of visitors came from London, the explanation being their belief that the ‘ Blessed Virgin Mary was always in residence at Dunsfold.”
Always in residence, a curious statement but delve deeper and it appears it refer to as Rattue places it ‘vague oral traditions’ of the Virgin Mary appearing in the vicinity, as referred to in the Guidebook. The Surrey Advertiser of the 14th October 1933 states she appeared to those who sought the spring’s water. England is not renowned for recorded visions of the Virgin, and indeed the only one appears to be the most famous, Walsingham, if we do not include the discredited Our Lady of Surbiton which begun in the 1980s.
Of course, new age pagans may suggest that some visions record a pre-Christian tradition of a pagan water deity. Certainly this is an ancient location with an old 1500-year-old yew which may have been the original focal point explaining the remote location of the church. So the site may have been pagan and this may be true, but the details are very vague when concerning the well. More likely is that this was a local attempt to create their own ‘Walsingham’ at a time when the Catholic church was beginning to re-establish itself more firmly in the region, after all an Anglo-Catholic movement had re-established itself in 1921 under Father Alfred Hope Pattern. The most famous healing spring associated with a vision of the BVM is of course Lourdes and it is tempting to make a connection. Did the local St John’s Seminary want to establish a local Lourdes? Did they need a well for their ablutions and a local story, possibly from ‘modern’ mystics visiting the area or completely concocted to justify giving the well the association with the Virgin?
In conclusion, I think it is easy to agree with Jeremy Harte (2008) in his English Holy who believes that:
“The cult at the well has the flavour of 1930s Anglo-Catholicism, and seems to have been created then.”
Good for them I suppose you could say and similarly ask does it really does not matter that its provenance for it is difficult to find such a delightful sacred spring?
Guest blog post: Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Ffynnon Elian, Llanelian… the ‘Cursing’ well? by Jane Beckerman
A great pleasure to have an account of North Wales most infamous well from the person who restored this once lost site, Jane Beckerman. We met briefly last year at last month’s holy well site Ffynonn Sara with Janet Bord and Tristan Grey Hulse and she has kindly provided this account, extracted from her forthcoming book on its history a great way to end our twelve months of North Welsh wells…
Near the small village of Llanelian in North Wales, lies one of the most important holy wells not just in Wales, but the British Isles. She looks very different now but two hundred and fifty years ago, beside the small, old road leading from Colwyn Bay to Llanelian Church, there was a large square wall surrounding an inner well with a lockable door, a fountain, pathways and even a bathing pool. From her untraceable beginnings to the middle of the 19th century, thousands of people visited the well and the nearby church, in order that their wishes might be granted by Saint Elian.
Ffynnon Elian (The holy well of St. Elian) has a long history, but from the beginning of the 18th century to half-way through the 19th, she was both famous and feared for her power to grant destructive wishes, or to ‘curse’. Known far and wide as the ‘Cursing Well’ and reaching the height of her notoriety in the early years of the 19th century, Ffynnon Elian was thought of as the place where it was possible to put a terrifying and successful curse on your enemies. The flood of sensational writing about the well, beginning in the 1780s tells us that people lived in fear and died of fright if they thought, or were told, that they had been ‘put in the well’. Only one of the writers, who visited the well during the period of her greatest notoriety challenged the idea that a holy well would have been used in so overwhelmingly poisonous and destructive a way. This fearsome reputation has continued and until recently has never been challenged.
Recent research shows that the ‘power’ of Ffynnon Elian was a fascinating and complex phenomenon and that the well was used essentially to undo supposed ill-wishing. The power of the well that endured was her reputation for curing the ‘curses’ of everyday life, for exposing wrong-doing and returning property to its rightful owner.
The ‘curses’ of life in North Wales during the years of the Napoleonic Wars, when the ‘cursing’ reputation became established, were many. Enclosure acts took away areas of common land for grazing a few animals and growing small amounts of food; the war with France took men, and their wages, away from homes and families; the weather between 1795 and 1816 was so poor that harvests were ruined or insufficient. Corn prices soared, riots ensued. Industrialisation brought new employment opportunities to North Wales, but new dangers with it. Improved farming methods and machinery brought some relief through better harvests, but there were fewer jobs available and staple crops like oats and barley were being neglected in favour of the ‘new’ crops, potatoes and wheat; less reliable in the uncertain weather of North Wales, and less nourishing.
A report prepared for Thomas Pennant in around 1775, in preparation for his Tours of Wales, contains the account given above of the way Ffynnon Elian looked at that time and also the first account of well’s powers to redress wrong doing. A woman at the beginning of the eighteenth century visited the well with a friend, to find out who had stolen her coverlet, and to ask that the item be returned to her. The two women had come to Ffynnon Elian from Llandegla, 40 miles away, past several other holy wells and places of healing. After visiting the well they both knelt before the altar in the church at Llanelian, a few hundred yards away, to ask for Saint Elian’s blessing. After praying, the petitioner waited outside the church, while her friend was unable to rise from her knees. St Elian refused to let her rise until she had confessed to the theft of the coverlet. Ffynnon Elian at that time was thought of as literally a ‘fountain’ of truth and justice that was not available elsewhere.
Thomas Pennant, a wealthy landowner, and a JP as well as a travel writer, promoted the myth of Ffynnon Elian as a place of malignant ‘cursing’ and wrote that he himself had been threatened. Further reading tells us that he had been astonished to find that other wealthy landowners were not bringing thieves to court because they were scared of being ‘put in the well’ (‘cursed’ at Ffynnon Elian). He reports his dismay that people were ‘stealing turneps’ with no threat of redress. It is difficult to be wholly sympathetic when one realises the circumstances in which people were stealing cattle food, almost certainly to eat themselves. And it points to another way Ffynnon Elian was used; as a way of redressing the very unequal social balance of the time.
Ffynnon Elian helped those who believed themselves or family members to have been ‘cursed’, or wronged, down on their luck, or ill. Depositions from a court case in 1818 described exactly why they went to the well. The depositions also describe what actually happened there. The ancient practice of transformation through water, traceable in Wales to pre-Roman society, and certainly used by the Romans in Wales in the shape of ‘cursing tablets’, impelled people to seek guidance, help and healing, in the absence of other agency, through the intercession of St Elian. A recent article in this blog talks about ‘cursing tablets’. Ffynnon Elian stands near to one of the Roman roads running towards Anglesey. Ritual at the well revealed at the 1818 court case shows that comparison can usefully be made with Roman custom at holy wells.
Ffynnon Elian, like all living things, changed her shape, her looks and her customs over the centuries. Her last, and best-known guardian, Jac Ffynnon Elian, only stopped offering his services in the 1850s. The continuing ‘magic’ of Ffynnon Elian was the deep belief she inspired in her power to transform lives. Jac Ffynnon Elian wrote that a man could be cured by the strength of his own beliefs, or he could suffer because of them. The history of this extraordinary well is testimony to his words.
A complete history of Ffynnon Elian is in preparation