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A Dorset field trip: some holy and healing wells of Dorset

Dorset is a rich county for holy well and healing spring explorers, many years ago I did some field work there. These are some of my notes.

St Candida’s or St. Wite’s Well, Morecombelake

Long overgrown and forgotten, this is a significant site associated as it is with one of the few surviving church shrines which has both foramina (holes for closer contact to the relics) and presence of the saint. Much has been discussed over the origins of saint, who is generally called St. Wite, but is more likely to be a local saint who probably utilised the spring. This is emphasised by a report by a traveller in the 17th century who recorded:
“St. White the Virgin Martyr, whose well the inhabitants will shewe you not farre off in the side of an Hill, where she lived in Prayer and Contemplation.”
Its waters were used for eye complaints and today the spring is clear and flowing. Christine Waters in her book Who was St. Wite? (1980) states:

“After venerating the shrine, our pilgrim made his way to the saint’s well, about a mile away at Morcombelake. The waters of St. Wite’s Well enjoyed a reputation as late as the 1930’s as being “a sovereign cure for sore eyes”. They were said to be most efficacious when the sun’s first rays lit upon them. Sore eyes, were of course, a constant source of discomfort to medieval man, living as he did in low cottages from which the smoke did not escape properly. Lead holy water bottles or “ampullae” were filled here and taken home for later applications.

The wild periwinkles that carpet nearby Stonebarrow Hill every spring, are still known locally as “St. Candida’s Eyes.”

It flows into what is possibly one of the smallest stone basins I have ever seen for a springhead and it is not surprising that it was lost for many years! The survival of the site is secured as this one of the few holy wells on National Trust land.

Holy Well, Hermitage

Little appears to be known of this well but its name is significant deriving as it does from probably from a hermit long forgotten who probably used the spring. It is known that Augustian Friars established a community here in the 14th century. One assumes the well is dedicated to Our Lady as the church is called St Mary’s. It is interesting that a local place was called Remedy on the old maps. The well fills a stone chamber by the edge of the wood above the church.

Leper’s Well, Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis has much commend itself and it also claims in a public path close to a footpath a quite substantial well. This is the Leper well which is so called in its association with a leper hospital dedicated to the Holy Spirit. The water arises beneath a mossy and algae covered arch and flows into a rectangular basin. This may be the same as St. Andrew’s Well associated with a chapel in the town of the same name. This well is mentioned in a number of medieval documents

St Edward’s the Martyr’s well, Corfe

One cannot fail to miss the grand ruins of this mighty fortess, now despite being broken and breached its very position as a sentinel to the picturesque Corfe it remains the iconic and impressive place. What is easier to miss and less well known is the well which lies within the ruins.
The story tells that here the body of the Saxon boy king who reigned from 975, after the death of his father Edgar. Although he was the eldest he was not officially recognised and this issue appears to have precipitated his demise, being thrown down this well in 978. Who planned the murder is unclear, history has always accused the mother of Ethelred the Unready, Aelfhryth Edward’s step mother, as she had more to gain. When the deed was revealed, by a pillar of fire from heaven, and the body retrieved it was found to be incorruptible and was enshrined with great grandeur first at Wareham and then at nearby Shaftesbury Abbey. The water thereafter was thought to be curative and was particularly good for eye complaints and the ague.
When I visited there was no sign of water and all there was to mark it was a depression. Whether this is the exact well or not is of course unclear the date of the indeed long predates the ruins. It is possible that the story hides some pagan motif and so is its similarity to that of St. Kenelem is interesting.
It is interesting to note that the church also dedicated to the saint had a well dressing ceremony in 2008.

The Lord’s Well Burton on Trent

In researching the Holy wells and healing springs of Staffordshire, my research brought me to Lord’s Well (SK 220 230) at Burton on Trent. It appears to have been called variously God’s or St Anne’s Well. This is found below Sinia Park House, a black and white wooden building set high on a hill above the Town. A footpath passes from the end of Lord’s well lane off the Shobnall lane, second turning on the left after the A38, however the causal visitor would be unable to see the well and the grounds are surrounded by tall trees and the well lays on private land. However, I was fortunate to be granted an opportunity to investigate the site by the present owners of the house, Mr and Mrs Newton.

They took over the house and have done a fantastic job repairing this noted building believed to have been granted to Burton Abbey, the original house appears to have been used as a grange for retreating monks who were undergoing blood-letting! It seems very likely they would have used the spring, but no firm evidence exists of this. At the Reformation, the land was sold to the Pagets who used the house as a hunting lodge. The present structure dates from the mid to early 1700s, probably as a bath to ease pain after a day’s hunting.

Certainly the structure appears to be a plunge bath, approximately nine feet by six feet made of squared sandstone blocks. There is a series of six or so steps to the west end of the bath. The spring appears to arise to the north in a small chamber, which according to Mr. Newton is blocked by a large rectangular stone. Over the chamber is a small plaque carved into the stone. This appears to have had a carved inscription but it is difficult to read, Mr and Mrs Newton said it was decipherable when they told over the estate and indeed took a photo but have mislaid the photo!

Mr Newton informed me that when he pumped out the well he uncovered a large number of stones which were covered with carved graffiti, most of these dated from the late 1800s and presumably record inhabitants of the house. He also revealed two metal hooks which look like the remains of a structure which help a sluice gate enabling the bath to fill so it could be used. A drainage hole was located near here and the water emptied a few yards in a small copse.

Like many sites the well has a good legend, here a local tale tells that the house had a secret tunnel to Burton and indeed local people told the Newtons that there chamber could be the start of this tunnel. It seems very likely considering the height of the spring that it records some account of a conduit to the town.

The origin of the name would appear to be clearly secular, (cf Lord’s Well Southwell in Holy wells and Healing springs of Nottinghamshire), but record of the site being called St. Ann’s and God’s well is significant but I have been unable to trace the earliest use of these names.

Directions: The Lord’s Well lies in the private grounds of Sinai Park House. This is currently owned by Mr and Mrs Newton who open to the grounds on special days.

Different engraved stones said to jave been from the well.