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.