St. Edith’s Well (TQ 552 586) lies below the Pilgrim’s Way in Kent and is the county’s most notable and best preserved sites. It is one of only two wells in the county which are dressed and the only one with a long lasting, over 50 years, tradition. this being St Edith’s procession held on the Sunday nearest to St. Edith’s Day.
A collection of cures
Chiefly, it was noted for its cure of eye complaints, and Watt (1923) also notes that it cured women’s barrenness. Belief in its curative power continued until the early 1900s. Its fabric is presumably ‘mediaeval’, and according to most authorities was once enclosed within a religious establishment, who were probably responsible for its upkeep. However there s neither archaeological nor written evidence of one but there is a recording in 1419 of a chapel of St. Edith the Virgin, which presumably was near the well and perhaps held a relic. Sadly, we do not really know.
A local saint
St. Edith (961-84 AD) was the daughter of the early Saxon king, Edgar and Queen Wulfthryth. Despite being nominated Abbess of Winchester, Barking and Amesbury, she refused these positions, disliking state affairs, preferring to commune with the poor and animals. This made her popular among her countrymen, who immediately recognised her saintly attributes. Despite this, her canonisation was not recognised everywhere, and Cnut’s scepticism, prevented her feast day being adopted in many areas. Those who championed her, used miracles at her tomb and her incorruptible thumb, as evidence for her saintliness and she was canonised, with her body being transferred to Wilton in 997 AD. She was said to have been born on land which is now covered by a property called the Box, but again it here is no evidence.
Evidence would suggest that her local popularity was deeply rooted in pagan belief! It is interesting to note, that an image of St. Edith was erected within the churchyard, which according to Lambarde (1571), prevented mildew and the blight of corn and wheat crops. Lambarde (1571) describes a ritual associated with the belief, and the following appears significant:
“Priest made uses to toll the greatest portion, and then to take all handful or little more of the residue the which after aspersion of Holy Water, and mumbling a fewe woordes of conjuration, he first dedicated to the image of Saint Edithe and then delivered it back to the parte that brought.”
This appears to be some persistence of an ancient fertility rite to a pagan deity, further supported by with the cure of cure barren women. Lambarde (1571) believed this, suggesting the Roman god, Robigus (after Robigo, a canker of corn), was the earlier cult focus here. It is recorded that similar ‘sacrifices’ were made to ‘him’, and so it seems likely that even the saint’s effigy could have directly replaced his and the church being built on his temple. The holy water, used in the ritual, may have originated from the well, and in pre-Christian days this may have been an important part of the ritual.
The well today
Today it lies within a small garden of remembrance forming a focal point for the original village. It is approximately three feet high, a round rag stone structure, with a series of steps approach the well. Access now, via these steps, appears impossible, the gate being locked. Watt (1917) notes that the structure was forlorn, and then repaired, and then forlorn again, but now appears in remarkable condition, being within recent years cleared of much of its overgrown ivy! To prevent rubbish falling into the well, brown wiring has been set across, both the well passage, and shaft. A considerable depth of water was present in 2013, and even after a long drought, in 1995. Indeed, I have been informed that it has never been known to dry up! A local belief conveniently ignoring that it was recorded dry at the beginning of this century! Today the well is the best it has ever been although sadly one cannot access the water directly due to the wiring up of the steps.
A modern pilgrimage
Even today, it is pleasing to note that the well is still an important and respected part of the village. It is depicted as the centre piece of a fine tapestry in the church, and on the village sign.
Two separate religious observations are undertaken on the day. In the morning, a procession, established in 1961, after the well was established. It passes through the village from the church is traditionally held on the Sunday nearest the saint’s day September 16th. Every ten years this forms part of a village wide celebration called St. Edith’s Festival, last held in 2011. A banner in the church maybe associated with an earlier 1920s revival perhaps as Mr. Taylor, a local associated with he present Catholic observation suggests.
Traditionally posies have been placed on the well during the service by the congregation, but in the last three years, since the 2011 festival, a well dressing has been undertaken place, last year’s was the Olympics, 2011’s was a picture of the village. This year’s was the harvest and delightfully it was rendered too with a good use of rhubarb seeds for a field and gravel for the signage. Next year’s is planned to be the First World War.
The artists being two local ladies, one of which would appear to have the tradition running through her veins coming from Elmton in Derbyshire, a village with a well dressing tradition, albeit a modern one. Subsequently, the frame is soaked in a paddling pool each year and taken to the village hall where on a table the two worked away using templates to create their art over the week finally finishing on the Saturday before.
I arrived just in time to see the board turn up wheeled on a barrow and just in time to give some extra muscle to set it up beside the well where it was duly staked in. The small group admired their handiwork and then it was covered for the arrival of the church and its congregation. A few minutes later this congregation, following their cross, but sadly no banner, and holding their posies, arrived. The service with the prayer which begins:
“Father each St. Edith’s day, we bring flowers to this well….”
Then the posies were placed upon the walls of the well, the service continuing with a reading of St. Edith’s hymn:
“At this well with great thanksgiving, blessed Edith we record, her short years of holy living, chaste handmaiden of the Lord, May we in her Lord believing, be like her his living sword.”
A thanks giving was given for the water and then the well dressing was revealed to the delight of the congregation. It was great to see that the well continues to be celebrated and the well dressing is a more than welcome innovation. The ceremony ends with prayers of intercession and a collect for St. Edith’s Day, Lord’s Prayer, hymn and blessing. It was a bit disappointing I felt that the support from the village was quite small, especially as everyone here seemed so inviting, but as the service was at 9.45, perhaps it was too early. I recommend moving the service an hour forward and more visitors may be attracted.
Christopher Bells’ Centenary History of the Catholic Church of St Thomas of Canterbury states that Father Phillips, Sevenoaks parish priest from 1916 to 1946, probably revived it around the 1920s. An elderly parishioner told Mr Taylor that the pilgrimage was going in the 1930s, but this was actually on the 16th, not the nearest Sunday as of recent. It is possible that as the village was home of Catholic convert Monsignor Robert Benson, son of Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1890s the observation may be older. I was told that now parishioners come from all part of the parish which covers the villages of Kemsing, Otford, Weald, Borough Green and West Kingsdown as well as Sevenoaks, some walking 8 miles as well journeying by car from London.
It is said that not only does her water cure eyes, but spiritual blindness, and Richard Bateman, the local Anglican vicar, attributed his conversion to Catholicism in part through her intercession.
Certainly the Catholic community may be aware of the need to start later. In the afternoon, a Catholic pilgrimage occurs from the nearest Catholic Church based in Sevenoaks. However, in 2013 although they planned to meet at 3.00, the weather had turned to the worse. The glorious weather of the morning being replaced by a penetrating drizzle, subsequently, the planned Holy Rosary, prayers and St. Edith’s hymn which were to be at the well were moved to nearby Otford Catholic church…hopefully the weather will be more favourable next year and they will return.
2011 well dressing image copyright Heather Porter
2012 well dressing image copyright Heather Porter
Many thanks to Mr. Antony Taylor, Jane Bowden and Erica Cole as well as the congregation of St Mary’s kemsing and especially Heather Porter
Images and post copyright Pixyledpublications.
Although January 1st, Imbolc and May 1st (or its first sunday) are associated with veneration of wells and springs and their increase in proficiency, Midsummer (Eve or Day) was a date often associated with visiting wells. Often the wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton or St John’s Well, Shenstone whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day. This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes that:
“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”
Now a lost site, it is possible that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.
Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:
“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day,
By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well;
The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”
In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.
These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:
“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”
Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire
“a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”
Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:
“People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”
When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6) in an article called Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:
“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”
Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.
The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo. This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.
Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:
“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”
Tait (1884–5) suggests that the building was:
“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”
This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. You decide.
When as lads in our clogs and our smocks we did go,
When the bright month of May did appear;
With bottles and Spanish, over Heathershelf Scout…
Then we’ve raced down the wood to the mineral spring,
Filled our bottles, and then felt as proud as a king.”
As quoted in Three Lovely Vales, in Biographies, Sketches & Rhymes by the Calder Valley Poets, ed. Sam Mellor Halifax, 1916 May Day or more precisely May Eve was often when the waters of local holy wells and springs were seen as particularly powerful in their properties. A custom linked to this was Spaw Sunday, the first Sunday in May, which was clearly a clever way to both legitimise a ‘pagan’ tradition by placing it on a Sunday and allow people not to miss work! The tradition appears to be a wholly northern custom restricted and mainly Yorkshire and Lancashire. I have found no record of it being undertaken in any counties abutting although similar customs such as sugar cupping occur in Derbyshire and far away in Oxfordshire. In Yorkshire, it now as far as I am aware only undertaken in three locations, two of which is in the Calder Vale and the other at Gunthwaite near Penistone. All the wells often appear to have one thing in common, sulphur waters, as noted in an account in a newspaper describing Gunthwaite Spa:
“Most of the pilgrims brought bottles or cups with them. They ‘supped’ the water, made faces, and filled with their bottles for friends. One old lady, after handing a cope to her daughters, asked what they thought of it. One expressively described the water as muck; and another said it tasted of rotten eggs.”
The smell of sulphur is most notable at perhaps the most famous of the three is that of Cragg Vale, which had a history at least 300 years old. The earliest reference dates from 1789 in Watson’s History of Halifax Parish, and even then the custom was to adorn the wells with boughs and flowers. According to an excellent article in the Northern Earth Journal by John Billingsley the custom is recorded from the late 19th and early 20th century in the Hebden Bridge Times. In particular he notes an account which recorded that 500 visited on May 6, 1906 and went to hear the Hebden Bridge Band playing at the White House Inn a few miles away. In the Telegraph and Argus of 7th May 1909 there was the following report on Spa Sunday:
“’Spa’ Sunday, specially favoured in point of weather, was as popular as ever on the hills surrounding the town. The Hebden Bridge Brass Band were out early, and discoursed music on the Erringden hillside. Blackstone Edge and Cragg Vale were as usual visited by hundreds of people.”
Sam Hellowell’s History of Cragg Vale (1959) records in 1913:
“It being a nice day the crowd during the afternoon was a very large one, being many hundreds in excess of last year’s and the scene was of an animated character. Testing the pungent water was much more generally observed than formerly. The scene, however, contrasted very favourably compared with the very rough and rowdy conduct of generations gone by. The local branch of the Independent Labour Party was represented with speakers. The Hebden Bridge Brass Band was also present, as was the Steep Lane Mission Band.”
The Cragg Vale Spaw Sunday died out in the 1940s probably during the War. A revival in 1987 was short lived. In the book, Martyrs, maypoles and Mayhem Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan (1994) report:
“the celebrations were revived briefly in 1987, and the well in Cragg Vale near Hebden Bridge was decorated with flowers and branches. Several Morris teams turned up, everyone took a gulp of the liquorice infused water, and a great time was had by all. In 1988 however, the first Sunday in May suffered appalling weather: the booked Morris teams cried off, and the tradition was dead before the morning was out. It remained dormant ever since.”
Consequently, the Spa spring itself became effectively lost falling like many sites in ruin and becoming forgotten out of site and mind. This was until 2009 when the site was cleared, cleaned and new steps provided with a landscaped surrounding. Then on the first May in Sunday, 1st May 2010, it was again revived. Fortunately, nothing appears to have affected the custom since its revival in 2011. The present revival consists of a procession to the spring from presently the Hinchcliffe Arms Inn with the Rippondale sword dancers and resident clergy. The spa is then blessed and water sprinkled and drunk with liquorice and cakes served.
At the same time a revival of Spaw Sunday has occurred in Midgley, the other side of Mytholmroyd. The origins of this custom is unclear, one of the organisers suggested an observance of it occurred in the 1970s and possibly 80s, but they were unaware whether this was a survival or revival. This custom consists of the dressing of the well and springheads of the small hamlet with banners and a wide range of flowers, objects and artwork. In the morning there was a perambulation around there were poems and recitations are consisted. At the end the assembled mass visit the community centre to partake in local delicacy dock pudding is served.
Also in the Calder Valley was Luddenham Dean Spa. This became a very popular event attracting brass bands, the temperance society, preachers and the speeches from the Independent Labour Party, it appeared to have declined at the second world war. Another well, was at Horley Green, Halifax, which according to Heginbottom (1988) in an article called Early Christian Sites in Calderdale, in Halifax Antiquarian Society Transactions notes that thousands people would visit it in the mid-19th century. The other side of the valley at Haworth, local people from that town, Oxenhope, Stanbury and other locales attended near Leeshaw Reservoir where a Spa Beak. According to a work by Martha Heaton’s (2006) quoted by Paul Bennett on Northern Antiquarian, the day consisted of:
“..sitting round the well, they sang songs, some bringing their musical instruments to accompany the singing. Children brought bottles with hard spanish in the bottom filling the bottle with water from the well, shaking it until all the spanish or liquorice had been dissolved. This mixture was known as ‘Poppa Lol’ and would be kept for weeks after a little sugar had been added, then it was used sparingly as medicine. The custom seems to have died out when Bradford Corporation took over the water and made Leeshaw Compensation Reservoir in 1875….It was a great day for many people, the Keighley News of May 1867 mentioned it, the report of local news reads thus: ‘A large assembly met on Spa Sunday on the moors about two miles from Haworth, and a party of musicians from Denholme performed sacred music.”
As far as I can ascertain, the furthest north Spaw Sunday site, but called Spo Sunday, was that of that of Spo well near Rochdale, Lancashire according to Taylor (2005) was also drunk with liquorice and shaken. Although, according Rowling (1976) in her Folklore of Lake District, the custom was undertaken during the first Sunday of May but appears never to have been called Spaw Sunday, being called ‘Shaking Bottle Sunday’ this may be due to the distribution of the term spa as term. Rowling records that liquorice was drunk with the water at Tolly or Keld Well, Greystoke up and until 1903. It was undertaken until the First World War, with water at Eden Lady Caves, near Great Salkeld. Indeed, a song was sung ‘The first is may is shaking day’ was sung with games undertaken on the day. Other ‘Shaking Sundays were on other days in May or Palm Sunday. It appears that the name Spaw or Spa Sunday was largely restricted to Yorkshire’s west Riding. The oldest surviving event is that of Gunthwaite in Yorkshire in the Pennines. Here the main part of the event is the attendance of the Thurstone Brass Band, who has played since the 1970s at the event. A newspaper report from 1904 recorded by Rob Wilson (1990) in his Holy Wells and Spas of South Yorkshire notes:
“It has a spring of water in which people of the district have wonderful faith. They look upon it as a sort of cure-all. But if you are to be cured you must drink of the waters on one special day in the year-the first Sunday in May. On other days the spring is just water. But on the first Sunday in May it becomes miraculously charged with all kinds of powers and properties, and people flock to it from far and near. The spa consisted of a little recess in a wall came a common rusty iron pipe, out of which the mysterious fluid was gently trickling. Below the pipe the little pool, in which pilgrims had to stand and stoop to get the precious First-of-May flavour, was muddy and objectionable looking. There was nothing tempting about the appearance of the place. But the worse the look, possibly the better the result. The cup, provided by a thoughtful Rural District Council, was chained to the wall, but was all battered and worn, dirty and shorn of everything that makes a drinking vessel attractive. All the pilgrims except myself, seemed to know the cup, and came prepared with drinking vessels of their own..the wall and pipe had not been there long. Formerly the water was obtained from the spring as it came out of the ground by the little stream among the rushes and rough undergrowth bordering the road. But the first of May water got mixed with the other water in the stream and lost its value. So it had been piped to the wall. An old gentleman did not approve of such radical changes; and did not think the water so good now that it came through a pipe as it was formerly.”
The account suggests that the attendees could get rowdy, returning to his old gentlemen the author writes:
“Then his mind carried him back long years to the time when there used to be great rejoicing on the first Sunday of May. ‘There used to be a band out here, and brave going-on, sure enough’ said the old gentleman, with a faraway look, as though he could see before him the crowd and dancing and the revels that disturbed the quietude of Gunthwaite Spa on the first Sunday in May years ago. The band was done away with a good many years ago, he said regrettably, because the people began to get too rowdy…
The spectre of alcohol, the opposite of the temperance movement’s stance at Cragg, was raised:
“Some of the young men however gulped the water down in big quantities. But they highly diluted it. They had come out armed with flasks of spirit, and horns, in which they mixed whisky and water. The two together seemed to make a highly attractive beverage; but such proceeding spoilt the charm of the mystery of the place. They degraded the water to a very commonplace level. Having partaken of the water, people sat about the banks to watch the other tasters, and to enjoy the faces they made. I was assured that some people were at the water early in the morning; long before breakfast.”
Rob Wilson (1990), notes that the band had returned and ‘little had changed in the 90 years or so since the account was written’. Today, the band plays from 2 onwards at the reservoir whilst refreshments of another kind, cakes, are available nearby. Hopefully these surviving traditions will continue and blossom and others will be resurrected.
An account of Spaw Sunday 2013 posted on traditionalcustomsandceremonies.wordpress.com at the end of the month.
Many thanks to John Billingsley of Northern Earth for his help and the warm welcome of the people of Cragg Vale and Midgley and http://megalithix.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/haworth-moor-spas