In early May I had the pleasure to present my interim findings of my study into votive offerings at holy and healing wells at the #rituallitter workshop at the University of Hertfordshire (more in a future post hopefully). My presentation particularly focused on rag wells, or as has erroneously been applied nationwide, clootie wells (see this post). This lend me to exploring the custom in the wider geographical context and as I am monthly recording holy and healing wells globally, this month I decided to detail three rag or loque wells (strictly sources a loque) in France. However, a map below will show the distribution of the wells across the county that I am aware of so far.
Research indicated as a custom this is just as vibrant as it is in Britain although in most cases the visitors adhere more often to rags, but as can be seen personal items can also be left
Interestingly the custom is most frequently encounter in the Nord Pas de Calais region and into Belgium. (It is also interesting to focus on holy wells not in Brittany as well) Furthermore, it is an activity associated not only with springs but calvaries, chapels and trees as well – none of which are associated with a springhead.
However typical site is that of St Latuin’s Well, at Clerey Belfonds near Seez. A site which is associated with an evangelizing saint, the envoy of Pope Boniface I who is said to have built an oratory at the spring. He was famed to for converting pagans by healing the death and blind. The curative reputation of the spring harks from curing the blindness of a local widow he stayed with when he arrived there.
At the well, pilgrims would pray first to the saint and then wash at the springhead, hoping to cure skin diseases, fevers, scabies and eye aches. Indeed even the plague was thought to be cured. The site was so popular in the nineteenth and twentieth century that it prompted the expansion of the town. The legend of how the spring, a red chalybeate spring arose is told in Charles Corlet’s Legendes de Basse-Normandie d’Edouard.
“Saint Latuin or Lin passes to be the first apostle of the Orne, It is attributed the foundation of the cathedral of Sees. Saint Latuin, on arriving at Sees, took refuge in a poor woman, a widow whose daughter had been blind for many years. The saint restored the sight to the unhappy woman, and then, preaching in public the word of God, performed many miracles of healing. Satan, annoyed at the beneficial action of the saint, aroused against him Fatisie, who wished to take revenge on the saint who had refused his advances. Fatisie intimated to Latuin, on penalty of death, to cease to preach in Christ’s favor. The saint paid no attention to these threats, but his disciples advised him to retire for some time. What he did in the forest of Clairay. There he set up his oratory near a fountain. His tranquility was short-lived, for Fatisie sent murderers to him with the mission of killing him and bringing back his tongue. At the approach of the saint, the murderers prostrated themselves and converted to the Christian faith. As they were to account for their mission, they consulted the saint in order to know the best way to deceive Fatisie. Latuin advised them to kill their dog, to take away their heart, and to defile their clothes with the blood of the animal. Fatia soon died of a fatal death. But the waters of the spring were tinged with blood. Latuin returned to Sées. He often went to his hermitage. It was in this place that death took him peacefully and he still worked miracles.””
Today the spring fills a large square stone basin beneath a statue of the saint dressed in Bishop robes holding a crozier and those coming to cure complaints have tied rags to the top of the metal fence surrounding it. The spring and its church are now the location for an annual pilgrimage. This year on http://www.ville-sees.fr/dimanche-24-juin-pelerinage-saint-latuin/ website it recorded:
“25 years ago, the association “Les amis de Saint Latuin” was created to offer the pilgrims of Saint Latuin the annual animation of the pilgrimage and to ensure the restoration and maintenance of the church of Cléray , Its cemetery and its fountain. On Sunday 24 June: 7.45 am: laudes at the cathedral, 8 am: departure of the march towards the church of Cléray (7.5 km), 10.45 am: gathering at the Cléray fountain, procession followed by the Mass chaired by Bishop Habert. “
In La Croupte, is a spring dedicated to St Martin, with its 15th century chapel. Near here is a statue of the saint festooned with ribbons and different socks, particularly baby socks, close to the springhead. Why are there socks? The spring is said to help children suffering from rickets and hence helping children to walk.
After praying and lighting a candle the clothes or socks are attached nearby. It is recorded that other saints are prayed to according to the healing required as it too cures skin and eye problems. The springhead fills a square basin surrounded by a metal fence upon which the votives are attached.
The final spring is that associated with a sacred landscape of Pre D’Auge, Calvados I Basse Normandie. Indeed it is unclear in this case whether the tree is more sacred than the spring head. Both are named after Saint Meen’s. This is a site which associates with a ragged oak which generations upon generations have attached rags to. The oak itself being called the Oak of Saint Meen, thought to be over a 1000 years old although it is now hollow and in the hollow is a small wooden statue of the saint (it is said that the original remains in a local castle). Indeed, there was concern about the condition of the oak and that in 2009 its final branch was removed and all that is left is the oak. However, the owners of the land concerned that the tradition would disappear ensured that two other oaks can replace it should the time come, one being planted in 1920 and the other in the 2000s. The hulk of the original tree has not prevented the pilgrims attaching rags which range from strips through to handkerchiefs to whole clothes. The spring is said to cure skin complaints and like at other springs, the cloth is first immersed into the spring and applied to the skin, before being left.
The rationale behind the springs use is related to the Saint, who was Breton monk who travelled these areas converting the pagans, who would appear to dislike rudeness and selfishness. It is reported that when on a journey to Rouen, thirsty he rested in the village. Seeing two young girls he asked them if he could drink, one said she would help but other complained about the scarcity of water and refused. As a result, he caused the spring to burst forth to thank the helpful one saying to the less than generous one:
“You will be covered with pustules and you will be obliged to come and wash yourself there praying to ask for your cure which will remind you of your lack of charity.”
A good reason to justify a rag well not doubt!
To those reading this blog, who may not be overly familiar with the study of Holy wells and healing springs, may be familiar with the throwing of coins into springs. However, this is a relatively recent invention, before this activity, itself of course quite expensive in older times – pins were used.
Pins you may ask? Why would you have a pin on you? Well of course in those days pins were commonly used, especially by women to hold hats on and so were generally available. A glance through works such as Jones on Holy Wells of Wales and Hope’s Legendary Lore of Holy Wells produces quite a number.
The custom was quite widespread from Northumberland (Worm Well) to much of Wales where at for example at Ffynnon Enddwyn, Merioneth, Wales evil spirits were ward off by doing so. At Piran’s Well, Cornwall, Hope (1893) tells us:
“Beside a path leading to the oratory of St. Pirian’s, in the sands, there is a spot where thousands of pins may be found. It was the custom to drop one or two pins at this place when a child was baptized.”
At Bede’s Well, Jarrow Durham, as noted before ill children were brought to the well and crooked pin was put in and at St. Helen’s Well, Sefton, Lancashire would inquire about the fidelity of their lovers, dates of marriage etc by as Hope (1893) notes:
“the turning of the pin- point to the north or any other point of the compass.”
In Chepstow, Monmouthshire a well called, the Pin Well, Hope (1893) again notes:
“those who would test the virtues of its waters said an ave and dropped a pin into its depth.”
Certain days were associated with giving pins. May time, particularly at St Maddern’s Well, Madron the first Thursday in May to consult this oracle by dropping pins states Borlase (1769) in his Antiquities of Cornwall.The Wishing well of St. Roche, Cornwall it was visited on Holy Thursday or Ascension Day. At Wooler, Northumberland, the Pin Well was visited by a procession of people from the village on May Day and each would drop a crooked pin into it and made a wish. Cruelly bent pins were daily thrown into St. Warna’s Well, Isle of Scilly to wish for ship wrecks! However in the majority of cases it was for a benefit of the depositer in a positive way. Quiller Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall (18??) notes that at Menacuddle Well:
“On approaching the margin, each visitor, if he hoped for good luck through life, was expected to throw a crooked pin into the water, and it was presumed that the other pins which had been deposited there by former devotees might be seen rising from their beds, to meet it before it reached the bottom, and though many have gazed with eager expectation, no one has yet been permitted to witness this extraordinary phenomenon. “
There appears to be an association with fairies and pins. At the Pisky Well, Altarnun Hope (1893) states:
“In the basin of the well may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who have visited it out of curiosity, or to avail themselves of the virtues of its waters. A writer, anxious to know what meaning the peasantry attach to this strange custom, on asking a man at work near the spot, was told that it was done “to get the goodwill of the Piskies,” who after the tribute of a pin not only ceased to mislead them, but rendered fortunate the operations of husbandry.”
Such an association appears as far north as Cartmel, Cumbria. Stockdale, in Annals of Cartmel notes:
“Near to this holy well are two cavities in the mountain limestone rock called the ‘Fairy Church’ and the ‘Fairy Chapel,’ and about three hundred yards to the north there used to be another well, called ‘Pin Well’, into which in superstitious times it was thought indispensable that all who sought healing by drinking the waters of the holy well should, on passing it, drop a pin; nor was this custom entirely given up till about the year 1804, when the Cartmel Commoners’ Enclosure Commissioners, on making a road to Rougham, covered up this ‘Pin Well’. I have myself long ago seen pins in this well, the offerings, no doubt, of the devotees of that day.”
In many places, such as at St. Philip’s Well, near Keyingham, Yorkshire girls would caste pins for love predictions. At Brayton Barf, Yorkshire, a reason for this is given. A local woman is said to have been enchanted by the fairies looking into a well here and they appeared to explain to her their need for pins. Apparently, they used hawthorn thorns for their arrows and these were very ineffective but some of the fairy folk had noticed that the pins used by local women would be an ideal replacement. However, the fairies had no real way of obtaining the pins by enchantment and so they arranged that any women who visited the well and dropped a pin would find out the identity of their true love reflected in the water. After awaking from her enchantment she threw a pin in and she saw the face of her sweetheart and so spread the news and the fairies got their arrows! Sadly, the well is lost. However, the tradition has spread as far as Rhosgoch in Herefordshire where Hope (1893) was told:
“who haved close to the well for two years, tells me that the bottom was bright with pins — straight ones he thinks — and that you could get whatever you wished for the moment the pin you threw in touched the bottom.” ” It was mostly used for wishing about sweethearts.”
Despite this rather imaginative reason for dropping pins, why were pins dropped. Well in many cases, when the pin was bent, this action resembled that done in prehistoric times to swords deposited in ritual areas as votive objects. For example it may be significant that at some wells pricking the finger before casting it away may have had a deeper meaning. Does it represent a sacrificial aspect to giving a votive offering? So perhaps take a small pin box and caste a pin not a coin if you must.
As the country reflects upon the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, I thought it would germane to consider one of the county’s most fascinating holy well especially being near a contentious battle of course! Enclosed in a woodland settling is one of Scotland’s greatest clootie well, Tobar na Coille often called St. Mary’s Well, but translated means the well of the wood. It’s position not far from the battle site of Culloden resulted in it becoming called the Culloden Well. Indeed it appears to have even more names – The Blue Well and the Tobar n’Oige of the Well of Youth. Surely, a significant site.
The fabric is unusual as well. It arises in a 18” diameter and 24” deep chamber which is surrounded by a circular building, more like a circular animal pound or dare I say it a urinal. Why the arrangement? Is it to protect the visitors from the vagaries of the spring, prevent animals entering or perhaps protect the decency of anyone who would bath here. However, that later idea is not supported by similar wells elsewhere and the spring is not big enough for a dip I feel.
A moved well
Not far from the well was a Chapel to St Mary, whose only remembrance being the local farm, Chapelton Farm, Balloch. As a site is did not survive the 1746 battle and nothing can be traced on the ground. It is possible that a spring of water near the old chapel was the original St Mary’s well and after the battle it was moved to this spring. This would explain the name changes perhaps and it has only recently become a true holy well.
The most prominent piece of folklore is the traditional rituals done at the well. One should walk round the well three times sunwise and then after drinking from the well tie a rag on the nearby tree. This is because the well was a clouttie well and today the well’s surrounds are adorned with them however even in 1979 the Morrises bemoaned the use of modern fibres stating:
“There were many rags in evidence during the visit…but since the majority were of unrottable man-made fibre it was obvious that the visitors did not fully understand the purpose of this part of the ritual.”
This sadly continues, but there is evidence of traditional fabric. The day to go to the well was the first Sunday in May, which underlines the association of the site with the old Pagan Celtic tradition of Beltaine. A visit on May day would reveal wine!
Morris and Morris (1980) inform us that in the 1930s as a many as a dozen buses were running from Inverness to carry visitors to the spot, who would drop coins and several pounds were recovered from the well and given to charity. Four thousand in all…today some come but not as many. However, even in the 1940s the Inverness Courier reported that on the first Sunday of May six Cameron Highland, wished over a well in a Tunisian olive grow as they tied their cloots that they be back at St. Mary’s Culloden. They survived the War and did meet! Such large crowds attracted the wrong sorts and stories of debauchery were spread by the papers and the more intolerant members of the Kirk.
Interestingly, it is said that the well or chapel gained its name from the belief that Mary herself lived in the area and administered to the sick. This may be based on the idea of a local ‘priestess’ who would stay at the well and help visitors…or more likely a way of endorsing this either Pagan or commercial enterprise.
What’s in a name?
If the real St Mary’s Well lies elsewhere, what can we say of this one. Clearly the name, Tobar n’Oige is not far from Tír na nÓg, well of the dead. This is significant because Beltaine was one of the times where the wraths and spirits could be seen and the gates to the afterlife were open. Or does it refer to the battle not far away? There is a well nearer the battle site which does bear the name, Well of the dead. Did this gain the name when the other adopted St. Mary, or does this suggest a strong Beltaine tradition in the area. The obvious explanation is that this is associated with the battle but that may be coincidental?
All in all in its woodland setting and especially seen on a misty spring day..St Mary’s Well is one of the country’s most romantic sites. One wonders what witness to the strife of Culloden it saw..thankfully we can discuss such matters with democracy.
This is the 101th post and I’ve picked a famous sacred well association the head cult. Much has been commented on the connection between sacred springs and heads, in particular. The term ‘head cult’ often being applied to a number of wells, but in reality there is little to prove the existence of anything concrete as a cult or continued worship. Such is the most famed site associated with a skull: St. Teilo’s Well or Ffynonn Deilo in the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire, a noted holy man who has given his name to many wells and churches. This well itself is nothing particularly impressive nor archaeologically significant, consisting of shallow square chamber and fills a series of ponds. However, the legend is quite remarkable. Asaph Dar’s Wales and the Welsh notes:
“The faith of some of those who used to visit the well was so great in its efficacy that they were wont to leave it wonderfully improved. An old inhabitant of the district, Stephen Evans used to relate a story to the effect that a carriage drawn by four horses came over to Llandeilo. It was full of invalids from the cockle village of Penclawdd, in the Gower Peninsula, who had determined to try the waters in the well. They returned, however, no better than they came; for though they had drunk of the well they had neglected to do so out of the skull. This was afterwards pointed out to them by somebody and they resolved to make the long journey to the well again. This time, we are told, they did the right thing and departed in excellent health. Such is the great persistence of primitive beliefs that while the walls of the church have long fallen into decay the faith in the well continues in a measure intact.”
Skulls (and heads) have a long and possibly confused association with sacred springs. Yet how did a piece of this saint’s skull end up being separated from the body and be associated with a holy well. Tradition asserts that when Llandaff Cathedral was stormed in the 15th century by Owen Glyndwr, a local man, Sir David Mathew paid for its restoration and was given the skull as a gift by the grateful Bishop. This was then set into a reliquary.
For seven generations, the Mathew family owned this private relic, until it handed over to the Melchoir family who owned Llandeilo farm in the 17th century. By then probably as a result in changing Christian views concerning relics, the skull was stripped of its reliquary, although its then use a drinking cup goes against this view, unless there was a period when the relic was disregarded followed by a period when the family either realised a possible income source or became more ‘Catholic’. Whatever, this is how the skull became associated with a holy well for own the farm as the name suggests is a site associated with the saint.
The Melchoir family, where the water would be lifted from the well using the skull and according to Sir John Rhys, quoted in Bailey (2003) that it had to be an heir of Llandeilo. Jones (1955) in his Holy Wells of Wales notes that a man in 1906 stated that a boy and two other lads were cured of an illness by drinking out of the skull early in the morning and that he reported that the waters were botted by the family.
However, the use of the skull to drink from would have stopped around….when the skull disappeared only to be returned by the last of the family to Llandaff Cathedral in 1993 where it now remains. The search for the skull makes an interesting read, especially the lack of publicity wanted for it by its ‘owners’ and can be read in Bailey’s excellent volume.
What is interesting is that the cult of head worship should develop so late in this story. This suggests perhaps the widespread survival of such beliefs into the 1600s, unless there was a local well already using the skull independently? Much has been said about the possibility of the Melchoir families being some sort of well guardians preserving a cult, although this is unlikely and more wishful thinking by new age antiquarians. More likely is that the family identified the coinage in developing the ‘worship’. An interesting postscript is for an examination of the skull in the Office of Works volume on ancient and historical buildings in Pembrokeshire records of the skull:
“the cranium is very old, and is polished from constant handling. A part of one superciliary ridge remains, and this is of such slight elevation as to make it almost certain that this skull is that of a female, while the open sutures point to the same conclusion.”
Well there you go! Clearly, the combination of faith and the water worked more directly than anything is ‘relic’ could add if this analysis was indeed correct. Yet whatever the facts the use of a skull in such activities is an interesting form of water veneration.
I’ve posted this on the 8th as the first posts were on the 8th October.
When is a well a holy well? Ruge well in Bristol, may not having any history of healing, association with saints or legends but by its association with the grand church of St. Mary Redcliffe and the continuation a unique tradition makes it a worthy consideration for this blog. The well is one of the few surviving and largely functioning springs which fall between two forms of classification, neither holy (or healing) nor domestic, by its association with the church it could be considered holy and as such I have included such sites in my surveys, but clearly there does not appear to have been anything sacred thought about it. But what is more remarkable is that there remains a surviving custom associated with it which dates back on and off 900 years!
An ongoing gift
The giving of the spring head by a member of the Berkeley family of nearby Berkeley Castle dating back to 1190 is perhaps the only such one surviving. The record reads:
“The Grant by Robert de Berkeley, at the instance of William, Chaplain of the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, to the said Church of the well called Rugewell, which is between his wood and that of Robert de Werve, with free access thereto. With a proviso that the hospital that the hospital of St. John the Baptist, Redcliffe, shall have a pipe as ‘mensuram unius mediocris pollicis’ for carrying water to their building.”
So reads the grant recorded in the Bristol record office dated 1190. What is surprising that not only does this spring still flow towards the church, an annual inspection of the source and pipe continues to this day. This was made possible by Juliana, Robert’s wife who affirmed that ‘the Church and her Ministers were allowed to lead off the stream of the well over the demense lands and lands of the tenants, through fence and enclosure and meadow and pasture by a conduit to the church in perpetuitary However, the first record of the pipe is not until 1552 the pipe gets its first notice when the vestry accounts recorded there is a charge for the purchase for the use of pipe for a house, the rental of which continues for a number of years. When the annual inspection begun is unrecorded but it is assumed to be when the grant was given.
This annual event was not at one point unique in the city, a similar annual inspection was undertaken by the city corporation of the Raven’s Well, also in Knowle and its conduit, called the Temple Conduit. This inspection being paid by an annual Temple fair, whose rowdy reputation, led to its closure and as a result without its annual meal. The Pipe walk similarly was associated with annual meal, although when abandoned is unclear, whatever it did not stop the custom although it is possible that it may have been responsible for its temporary abandonment and revival in 1928 as reported by the Bristol Evening Post. An amusing account from Pipes, pumps and conduits reads:
“Had you passed by the Wells Road on Thursday week, you would have seen a small troup of substantial citizens, walking with their sticks in hand, resolutely bent on a rustic expedition; and had you followed them, they would have led you through the fields about a mile further on, to a farm at Lower Knowle. Here the jolly pilgrims would have come to a standstill at a flat stone, about two feet square, in the centre of some ploughed ground. Presently a couple of plumbers, who accompanied them, raise the stone and disclose down below a deep subterraneous and good sized chamber, which it would require the light of Aladdin’s lamp to explore. There is a good deal of joking amongst the gentlemen as to who shall descend the ladder first, and as you look around and see amongst them several plump worthies, you come to the conclusion that to them ‘the descendent to Avernus’ is not only ‘not easy’ but physically impossible; but there are among them slim gentlemen, whom parish dinners, have not blown out, and these come forward and disappear one by one into the bowels of the earth, leaving their ‘fat friends’ behind, not only loath but unable to quit the warm precincts of the cheerful day.”
The description of the well head indicates that post that date some considerable improvements were made and now the well, enclosed with allotments, is a substantial stone well house. When the door is opened, now a rather ugly metal one, an older chamber is visible in which a considerable flow was visible. However, one is mistaken if thinking that this structure is the true well for a few feet behind it some land hand given way and a deep stone lined conduit could be seen. Beyond this is a circular boggy area where the springs arise. The report states:
“Don’t be afraid to descend the ladder after those who have been hardy enough to get down, and there by the flicker of a lamp and the occasional flash of a lighter cigar, you will see sparkling up from the fissure of the living rock the water of Ruge Well.”
From this spring a pipe line was laid travelling two miles to a tap conduit head near the church. This route has changed little since the 1190s although urbanisation has sprung up to enclose it and now Victorian pipe has replaced whatever medieval structure there was; the route remains fossilised in time. From the spring head the walk takes itself through allotments, much to the bemusement of those tilling it, down narrow lanes, along streets, at certain points, small stone monuments mark the pipe. If you were not looking for them you would miss them! Most vaguely reading SMP. At certain points, most amusingly in the garden of a ‘modern’ house a manhole cover is lifted and the pipe revealed. What is particularly interesting is how the depth of this pipe becomes increasingly greater to where we reach Victoria Park, where a ladder is needed to descend some distance into the earth. At this last one, ceremonies appear to have developed; in early times the walkers would take a refreshing draft from the pipe…not recommended now but probably welcomed then. The other being the bumping of new attendees on the walk, a ritual often associated with boundary walks which was done to ensure the walkers remembered the marks. The above account also suggests other aspects of beating of the bounds were done – the hitting of the markers with ‘their sticks in hand.’ In 1990, when the 900 years of the pipe was celebrated a token walk over the railway line was done here. This is because despite the presence of an underpass and the importance of this main line, walkers arranged for the trains to be stopped so all the walkers could cross. During the 900th walk, a celebration peal of the church was also rang during it and the Bedminster Citadel Band of the Salvation Army played at one of the stopping points.
A water labyrinth
Also in Victoria Park is a delightful and unique fountain head, the result in 1984 of Wessex water needing to build a sewer across Victoria Park where the pipe ran. The resulting labyrinth was created based on one depicted on a boss of St. Mary Redcliffe. The pipe water fills this labyrinth, the water flowing around the pattern. From the Park, under the railway and down Spring Lane, the pipe travelled over Bedminster bridge and up to the church to fill a tank in the church yard and flow from a lion headed pipe over which reads translated from Latin:
“For the health of the soul of Robert Berkeley, who gave to God and the church of St. Mary Redcliffe and its ministers the Rugewell and conduit. AD 1190 Erected.”
Sadly, during the Second World War, the pipe got a direct hit, however in the 1990s, the source of its break was located and now the flow continues, albeit rather rusty looking to the tank behind the fountain head. It has yet to flow from the lion’s mouth. So Bristol’s Pipe and its walk is a curious survival. It survived the Reformation unlike many church related customs, probably became it was not necessarily associated with ritual but function. It survived the 1800s, when similar customs such as the Temple Walk declined. It survived the wars, although I believe it ceased for the First World War. And it continues to survive long after there is any need for its waters. Yet it is a worthy celebration of the importance of water and long may it continue.
Wales is much endowed with holy wells many dedicated to local saints. Behind the evocative 14th century church of Gumfreston, lay three wells which should be right be dedicated to some saint, but they only have the name – Church wells. Nevertheless, these wells are a fascinating example of water lore in this region of Wales. Three springs arise here, two enclosed in rough stone walling the other a simple spring. According to tradition, the uppermost spring is pure water, middle one chalybeate and lower one sulphur although all appear to be chalybeate. Francis Jones (1954) Holy Wells of Wales states that the wells were visited on Easter Day and bent pins were dropped into the water. This was called ‘throwing Lent away’, a recognised custom this appears to have been last recorded in the 17th century when the rector of the church was removed by puritans. However, despite the superstitious popularity of the well being removed by the 18th century the water was being analysed. A Dr. Davis, a physician to William IV, described the warers as being chalybeate and were ‘as good as the wells of Tunbridge’. At this time nearby Tenby had developed as a spa and visitors would visit Gumfreston to take the waters and there was a growing business to provide bottles for those unable to reach it. In the 1830s plans were drawn to enclose the springs and build a pump house and changing rooms for these visitors. This does not appear of have occurred but the wells continued to be regarded. Later a Dr. Golding Bird who was a ‘Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Professor of Therapeutics to Guy’s Hospital’. He described it as follows, reported in Samuel Hall and Anna Hall The Book of South Wales 1861:
“In consequence of the shallowness of the basin, this water is apt to vary in composition after heavy rains, from its undergoing dilution; this however applies nearly exclusively to the solid ingredients as the evolution of carbonic acid gas from the subjacent strata is so considerable that the water is, under all circumstances, saturated with the gas, so as to sparkle vividly in a glass, and undergo violent ebullution when laced on the air-pump and very slightly exhausted. The water is remarkable for its singular purity, the quantity of the saline ingredients being exceedingly small. An imperial gallon contains but five grains of lime, part of which exists as carbonate, and is held in solution by an excess of carbonic acid. The exceeding minute quantity of sulphuric acid is remarkable, less being present than in the purist river water. The quantity of oxide of iron is about 2.4 grains of iron. The Gumfreston water is, however, one of the purest hitherto noticed, and owes its medical properties to the iron, and the larges quantity of the carbonic acid it contains. This extreme freedom from saline ingredients, the presence of which constitutes the hardiness of water would render this water of great value to those patients who cannot bear the ordinary chalybeate water. The Gumfreston water resembles that of Malvern in its purity, and of Tunbridge Wells in the quantity if iron it contains, exceeding all other chalybeate waters in Great Britain in the large quantity of Carbonic acid held in solution. In cases of chlorosis, and other forms of deficiency of red blood in the system, this water would be invaluable.”
Traditionally cures such as leg problems were associated with the upper spring due to its shape like a leg, the middle for hands and arms, and the lower for eyes.
Customs associated with the well
Jones notes that it was custom here and at other wells to visit at New Year to get ‘New Year’s Water’. He recalls that children would collect it and carried it to local houses to sprinkle on their front doors with sprigs of evergreen or box. They sung a song which went:
“Here we bring new water from the well so clear, For to worship God with, this happy New Year, Sing levy dew, sing levy dew, the water and the wine, With seven bright gold wires, the bugles that do shine, Sing reign of fair maid, with hold upon her toe, Open you the west door, and turn the old year go. Sing reign of fair maid, with gold upon her chin, Open you the east door, and let the new year in.”
When the custom ceased is unclear, but traditions continue at the well. The custom of throwing Lent away has been recently revived with nails used to symbolise the crucifixion and done on Easter Sunday. Within recent years a number of newer customs have arisen. Davis (2003) in his Sacred Springs states that for a small donation visitors can make a wish or make a prayer and hang a ribbon and bell from one of the trees overhanging the springs. Since the 1990s a simple well dressing has been developed in Easter.
Image and text Copyright Pixyledpublications
Now remarkably lying in a green oasis in some of the worst areas of industrialised Bristol is the St. Anne’s Well (ST 621 725). This lies in St Anne’s wood, which was acquired by the Bristol Corporation, and since then very little has been done thankfully to change its situation. The circular brick rounded well, was restored early this century. A suitable inscription reads:
“Wishing well, St Anne’s Well. This Holy Well was associated with the chapel of St Anne, which stood about 300yards to the NW; throughout the Middle Ages , pilgrims were made here, and especially by the sailors of Bristol, Henry VII. Visited this spot in state in 1485, and hither his Queen came in 1502.”
“The Chapel, dating from about 1392 was destroyed with Keynsham Abbey, to which it belonged, in 1539 by Henry VIII.”
William Worcester described the chapel as:
“58ft by 80ft high, with colossal square candles, renewed yearly at the Pentecost, that touched the roof nearly at the roof and cost £ 5 each. Thirteen others burnt before the image of St Anne. There were also 32 models of ships and boats, 20 shillings each, for receiving and containing offerings and sometimes to burn incense in .”
It was founded by a certain Lord de la Warr, of Brislington. One can say without doubt that the pilgrims, many of the important, must have contributed greatly to the coffers of Keynesham Abbey. A typical entry is shown in the Duke of Buckingham (1502) diary:
“ My Lord’s and my young Lady’s oblation to St Anne in the wood, seven shillings and four pence.”
The chapel was controlled by a custodian or warden. One particular individual is remembered in the Keynesham church. It reads:
“Hic Jacit Walternus Jose canonicus nuper custos capelle Sancti Anne in the Wode cujus animo propicietur alissum amen.”
From 1635-1800 the chapel was used as a pottery works when it was demolished. In 1889 action was brought about concerning a public right of way through the wood and passing the well. This footpath had been used for centuries for passing to St Anne’s Ferry, and to make pilgrimage to well and chapel. This is referred by Leland in 1542:
“At two miles above Bristow was a commune trajectus by bote (ferry boat) where was a chapel of St Anne on the same side of the Avon that Bath standeth on , and here was great Pilgrimage to St Anne.”
Interestingly none of these authors directly make reference to the well and authorities such as Harte (2008) in a magnus opus question that there was ever a holy well. This may be so, certainly the recorded history of St Anne’s Chapel being much greater than that of this well, which does not get mentioned until the 1880s, when Morris (1885) who discusses ‘the Shrine Well of St Anne’s-in-the-Wood, Brislington’. The well becoming at this time a place of pilgrimage by local Catholics who perhaps replaced the chapel as it was no longer possible to re-build or even trace its remains with the well. Indeed, it may be when as Hope (1893) notes a Father Grant cleared out the well in 1878 and found:
“some coins were found in this well… 1. Half groat, Edw.IV; 2. An abbey token; 3. A half groat, Hen.VII; 4. A Portuguese coin; 5. A reckon-penny or counter.”
By the time Hope (1893) refers to this he states that:
“The water of this well was formerly considered good for affectations of the eye”.
Horne (1923) in his Somerset Holy Wells monologue reports that the well:
“has been cleaned out to a depth of twenty feet, and the stone work at its sides is in perfect condition. The spring enters the well about six inches from the bottom, on the north side.”
According to Jones (1946) in his The Glory That Was Bristol, states that by the turn of 1900s the well was ruined again who adds:
“The writer as a boy often visited the well taking away, with others, the water for the bathing of weak eyes. Its water is used to-day for weak eyes, rheumatism, and blood impurity. “Johnny Onion Men” from Brittany made annual pilgrimages to the well till recent years… The writer commenced in 1920 a movement for the restoration of the Well”
This also resulted in the woods containing the well being given to Bristol Corporation to allow continued access to the site. Winchester (1986) in St Anne’s, Bristol: A History,, notes that:
“in front were five large stepping stones, said to be Holy Stones. The Stones were very old and worn, with deep impressions made by hundreds of feet. They were removed in 1924 but replaced… In 1926, the City of Bristol had the well covered with a picturesque canopy and surrounded by a protective wall… Few people lived in the area, but I do not think that any child passed the well without standing on the stepping stones and stirring the waters with a twig, hoping to find Queen Anne’s ring!”
Another account records that the Cordwainers:
“In May, 1939, members of the Guild with their friends and distinguished visitors made a pilgrimage to the “Holy Well” in St Anne’s Wood. They were led by the sheriff of Bristol, Colonel Lennard, who was a cordwainer.”
The fortunes of the well and its pilgrimage over the last 90 or so years have been mixed. In the 1920s a circular well was constructed with a conical tiled roof. However, the well has gone through several stages of neglect. Winchester (1986) records in 1975 that rubble filled the well with a metal disc cover over it but a local holy wells pagan group, The Source set about restoring the site and created a new circular well chamber and a statue of St. Anne, although this statue now lays prostrate. They also established a regular visit to the well. Currently, a theatre group enacting the characters of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York for a mile long community walk to the well with readings at it on the Sunday closest to the saint’s day following the ancient route.
More can be found out here, with some excellent photos and illustrations http://brislingtonarchaeology.org.uk/projects/st_anne/index.html
and https://www.facebook.com/events/133809176814235/ for the events
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