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.