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The lost well of St Faith’s Hexton, Hertfordshire

It is difficult to imagine that this small and remote village was once the scene of great pilgrimage. The centre of this being St. Faith’s Well (TL 103 303). St Faith also known as Foy, a third century martyr and virgin, burned alive and beheaded at Agen in Gaul, is associated with Saints Hope and Charity. Her body translated to Conques where a splendid shrine and reliquary was established. The saint was popular with pilgrims and crusaders, and one shrine was established at Hasham, near Norwich.

It is believed that the dedication arose due to the land being in the charge of a homesick French monk: hence the church and well shared the same dedication. In 1243, Abbot John assigned the rectory of Hexton to the sacrist of the Abbey, and the revenue was so great that it was shared with the almonry. Indeed the revenue was greater than the parson’s holdings and tithes. The well thus attracted great numbers and an alehouse was established for their benefit, this is now Red Lion cottage next to the school.

Unfortunately, St. Faith’s Well fell afoul of the Reformation, but luckily lord of the manor Francis Taverner, recorded a great deal of details regarding it. Indeed, his description has become a valuable guide to the possible complexity of less recorded sites. He described the well and its position as follows:

“There is a small persell of ground adjoining to the churchyard called St Ffaith’s Wick Court, about a pole in measurement, anciently divided from Malewick by a ditch in the same place now a large moat is made. The greatest parte standing upon a bedde of springs, and undrained was very boggye, towards the churchyard. But the west side of the wick, being higher ground….neer adjoining unto which…the Craftye Priests had made a well.”

The well itself was:

“about a yard deep and very cleere in the bottome, and curbed about. Now over this well, they built a house.”

Pilgrimage to the well involved adulation to an image of the dedicated saint, for he notes that:

“..in this house they placed an image or statue of St Ffaith and a cawsey they had made…. for people to passe, who resorted thither from four and neere to visit our lady and to perform their devotions.”

The well would seem to be beneficial for foot complaints for pilgrims would be:

“… revently kissing a fine colured stone placed on her toe’ which was believed to bestow cures.”

Also the sick would throw something (nothing is specifically described) into the well:

“..which if swamme above they were accepted and there petition granted, but if it sinke, then rejected which the experienced Prieste had arts enove to cause to swymme or sinke according as himselfe was pleased with the partye, or rather with the offering made by the partye.”

It would appear that the priest was able to influence the object like some kind of wizard. Unfortunately, the land was drained and levelled in 1624 being noted that:

“St. Faith’s Well continued as a waste and unprofitable and neglected piece of land till such time as the footpath was turned through the midst of it to the outside on the south by the highway, and their clearing and levelling the ground.”

It is worth noting that the effigy of the saint was dressed and in an old book of churchwarden’s accounts, in the reign of Henry VIII it is noted that:

“that they had delivered unto the St. Faith a cote and a velvet tippet.”

Land  lying in Mill Field, called St. Faith’s ½ acre, which associated with the shrine, came to the King’s hands at the dissolution, and is now parcel of the demesnes. The approximate site can be seen to the side of the church, where a small picturesque pool of water is apparent. The collapse of the tower may have been as a result of undermining from the spring.

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In our days of heritage protection it seems astounding that single handed one man could remove this great site, but they did. However, the name St Faith’s wick court is remembered and the water from the well still remains it appears to fill the moat but it is a poor replacement for what sounded like a fascinating site in this remote area of Hertfordshire.

Springing from the fight between Paganism and Christianity – St Decumen’s Well, Watchet, Somerset

Overlooking the Bristol channel on a hill in Watchet is a holy well associated directly with the struggle between paganism and Christianity. A spring which arose at the site of his brutal martyrdom. Now a delightfully peaceful oasis and a favourite site

Who was St. Decumen?

Born of noble Celtic parents at Rhoscrowther in Pembrokeshire. Wishing to live a hermit life he travelled across the Bristol channel on his raft made of a cloak with a cow for a companion.  There he became a hermit teaching the local people Christianity and healing people.

St Decumen’s martyrdom.

The Life of St Decuman in the Nova Legenda Anglie, records how in AD 706, his missionary teachings were becoming unwelcome to the old heathen leaders, and so they plotted to remove him. Thus he was attacked whilst in prayer and summarily decapitated ( other authorities say it was by pagan robbers possibly Vikings? ) They were described as:

 ‘a certain man more venomous than an asp, more poisonous than the adder’

They were said to have cut his head off with a spade and in the legend it is said:

“when he was beheaded with a spade, the trunk of the mutilated body, they say, raised itself and took its own head in its hands and carried it from the place where he was beheaded to a fountain of most limpid water, in which he was accustomed to wash his face with his hands. Which to this day in memory and reverence of him is called the ‘Fountain of Saint Decuman’, and is sweet, healthful, and necessary to the inhabitants for drinking purposes. In which place the head, together with the body, were afterwards sought for and found by the faithful, and honourably placed in a tomb”.

However his decapitation did not stop his missionary zeal and he picked up his head and washed in the nearby stream. After which he replaced it back on his own body and carried on. Others say that the spring itself arose where the head fell.  It is said that this act was so miraculous that the local people helped build a church according Ben Norman’s 1992 Legends and Folklore of Watchet.

Legends associating springs with heads are common in holy well tradition and a number have been discussed on this blog. One wonders whether the spring was originally a pagan site in this case and that was why the pagan community was angry…this anger still continues I note as seen on Facebook and some forums!

The holy well

Dom Horne (1923) in Somerset Holy Wells states that

“the holy well is in a field at the west end of the church, and the water comes out between great stones set on end, having a third forming a roof on top of them. The water runs down sharply sloping field it flows into a number of stone basins, one below another”.

This is what remains today although it has gone through periods of neglect and vandalism since. Today the side walls consist of a number of slates, however the cover is still one large piece. The water still flows into three stone basins, although they are a little clogged with sediment. A series of steps ( somewhat eroded ) reach the well. A great deal of clear water remains in the well, and according to Horne, it was still sought after in 1923, although it would appear that bar a few coins, there is now no evidence of this.

Michael Calder in his 2003, Early ecclesiastical sites in Somerset: three case studies in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeology .& Natural History Society. Suggests that the spring maybe all that is left of an earlier minister church which was probably lost by the 11th century with the cult moving to the well and church once it had vanished.

Interesting a sign by the well states the well was restored in association with a local pagan society….perhaps at last the struggle has gone!

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Osogobo Osun shrine Nigeria

At the source of the Oṣun Riveri is the Osun Shrine on the outskirts of Osogbo in southwestern Nigeria. Along the river are sculptures and sanctuaries in the last of the Yoruba’s sacred forests a site now identified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The shrine is a major African pilgrimage site. The Osun/Osogbo grove is where the Osun goddess, also known as Yeye Osun or Oshun Kole resides. It is believed that the river arose when a frightened women turned into a river. The river is so named from Osun or Oshun a Orisha. Osun is a river goddess who was one of the wives of Sango who was the Yoruba God of Thunder noted for being able to give barren babies

The Oshun goddess

Described as the most complex of the Yoruba-Lukumí pantheon deities. It is believes that Oshun embodies the very substance of the water we drink with her fan abebe (deriving from the verb ‘to beg).Oshun Kole is described as:

the gifted, beautiful, affectionate, sensual goddess of luxury, and pleasure, ruler of oceans and fresh waters…she is called the giver of life, mother of orishas, and possessor of feminine virtues; she guards women during pregnancy. Oshun walks many paths: she is given to industrious intuitions, manages finances, and loves music and dancing. As Kole Kole, Oshun represents children and the poor and needy. She typifies the ‘sensuous saint’ and controls the knowledge and art of sexuality and lovemaking in human pleasure and marriage. Legend has it that Oshun used her charm to lure Oggun out of his wild forest life into the city. She seduces other male Orisha lovers although her main consort is Shango. Ogun loves everything yellow and her ornaments and elekes (necklaces) reveal expensive tastes.”

Her association with fertility allows her to be described as the mother of many children and that barren women would visit the shrine. Due to the dispora from Nigeria travelling across the world the deity is recognised globally often associated with the Virgin Mary as in Cuba manifesting itself with their patron saint. Therefore pilgrims come from as far as Peru, USA, Brazil, Germany and the UK.

The development of the shrine

The shrine sits on the banks and is comprised of wooden deities who stare out from the inner sanctumUNESCO record that:

A century ago there were many sacred groves in Yorubaland: every town had one. Most of these groves have now been abandoned or have shrunk to quite small areas. Osun-Osogbo, in the heart of Osogbo, the capital of Osun State, founded some 400 years ago in southwest Nigeria, at a distance of 250 km from Lagos is the largest sacred grove to have survived and one that is still revered.

The dense forest of the Osun Sacred Grove is some of the last remnants of primary high forest in southern Nigeria. Through the forest meanders the river Osun, the spiritual abode of the river goddess Osun. Set within the forest sanctuary are forty shrines, sculptures and art works erected in honour of Osun and other Yoruba deities, many created in the past forty years, two palaces, five sacred places and nine worship points strung along the river banks with designated priests and priestesses.

The new art installed in the grove has also differentiated it from other groves: Osogbo is now unique in having a large component of 20th century sculpture created to reinforce the links between people and the Yoruba pantheon, and the way in which Yoruba towns linked their establishment and growth to the spirits of the forest.

The restoration of the grove by artists has given the grove a new importance: it has become a sacred place “

 The Nigerian Bulletin records its origins:

“The origin and story of Osun festival started over 700 years ago when a group of settlers led by one great hunter, Olutimehin settled on the bank of the river to escape the famine in their former dwelling place. Osun, the water goddess was said to have appeared to Olutimehin and requested him and his group to move up some bit to higher ground – the present Osogbo town. Osun pledged to protect the group and make their women fruitful if they would offer an annual sacrifice to her in return. The group agreed, vowing to sacrifice annually to the goddess trusting that she would honour her promise. Today, the annual sacrifice has gone past just offering sacrifices to a river goddess, it has become an international celebration of cultural events attracting people from all over the world.”

Account in https://www.legit.ng/830694-the-mysterious-river-dreaded-goddess-and-all-the-unbelievable-myths-about-the-osunosogbo-shrine.html describes the ritual upon reaching the shrine:

“Before our entrance to the courtyard, the Chief priestess was seen appeasing the gods of the river.”Yeye ooo, Omi ooo,” she said in Yoruba, meaning “My mother, water” just as a way of reverencing the goddess that resides in the water. On entering the courtyard, we were made to put away our shoes as it nobody was allowed to wear shoes inside the sacred grove, as our cameras were barred from entering the Osun shrine where sacrifices and requests are being made.”

The account records that:

“During our visit, a woman and her husband were seen with the chief priestess, going towards the river to appease the goddess of many children. And after whatever sacrifice that is made to appease the goddess of the river, our correspondents gathered that nobody is allowed to look back as anyone who does will live with whatever consequences that follows”

The shrine and its waters is therefore still an important site indicating the importance of Sacred pre-Christian waters to the modern often Catholic African and South American population. It was probable that originally the shrine demands a real watery sacrifice at times and that the association with August conveniently near the feast of Mary allowed a more convenient personal sacrifice to be given. Today despite slight modernisations it is a powerful place of faith.

Guest blog post: Ffynnon Leinw – Holy Well or natural wonder by Tristan Gray Hulse (part three)

It is a pleasure to present Tristan Gray Hulse’s third part of his monograph on Ffynnon Leinw

For Giraldus, the ebbing-and-flowing spring near Rhuddlan was a wonder of the natural world. Such watery natural wonders were a source of perennial fascination to the people of the medieval period. For example, in Wales, the “De mirabilibus Britannice insule” chapters of the early ninth-century Historia Brittonum of “Nennius” are almost entirely taken up with the anomalous behaviour of springs, lakes, and the tides (Morris 1980, 40-2, 81-3). They held an equal fascination in the Early Modern period. This fascination is clearly revealed in one of the Queries (No. XXIV) in the series of “Parochial Queries” which Edward Lhwyd printed and distributed throughout Wales c. 1695, which resulted in the priceless assemblage of information now generally known as the Parochialia. Lhwyd asked for:

An Account of the subterraneous or diving Rivers; & of such as are totally absorbed; or no where distinguishable afterwards; also of sudden Eruptions of Water, & periodical Streams. A Computation of the Number of Springs in the Parish. How near the Tops of the Hills are the highest running Springs: Or are there any in very even Plains remote from Hills? Any Fountains that ebb and flow? Waters that petrify or incrustate Wood, Moss, Leaves, &c. Medicinal Springs, or Waters of an unusual Taste, Smell, or Colour, or remarkable for their Weight or tinging the Stone or Earth whence they proceed? (Lhwyd 1909, xiii.)

Thus, it was simply as a natural wonder that writers from Humphrey Llwyd to Pennant chose to describe Ffynnon Leinw; but attitudes were beginning to change, and interests slowly to widen. In 1613 Michael Drayton (1563-1631) published the first eighteen sections (of an eventual thirty) of his epic poem Poly-Olbion, or a Chorographicall Description of all the Tracts, Rivers, Mountains, Forests, and other Parts … of Great Britaine. Mapping England and Wales with reference to their noted springs and rivers, he used this imagined framework to relate the history, real and legendary, of the two countries. In the course of this (Tenth Song, lines 132-40) he versified Humphrey Llwyd’s Commentarioli passage on the Cilcain well.

As also by thy Spring, such wonder who dost win,

That naturally remote, six British [i.e., Welsh] miles from sea,

And rising on the firm, yet in the natural day

Twice falling, twice doth fill, in most admiréd wise,

When Cynthia [the moon] from the East unto the South doth rise,

That mighty Neptune [the sea] flows, then strangely ebbs thy Well;

And when again he sinks, as strangely she doth swell;

Yet to the sacred Fount of Winifrid gives place;

Of all the Cambrian Springs of such especial grace [&c] (Hooper 1876, II, 49-50).

At the end of each Song Drayton’s friend the jurist and antiquarian John Selden (1584-1654) supplied detailed references and commentaries for the various locations, sights and wonders celebrated in the Poly-Olbion. For lines 132-8 Selden identified the well as Finon Leinw in Kilken, and referenced the accounts of Llwyd and Powel; and he further noticed the ebbing-and-flowing wells at Newton (from Stradling’s account in Camden) and Dinefwr (from Giraldus). But when he came to account for the ebbing-and-flowing phenomenon itself, he seemed to suggest – doubtless, tongue-in-cheek – that such wonders existed simply to tease the antiquarians.

Nor think I any reasons more difficult to be given, than those which are most specially hidden, and most frequently strange in particular qualities of Floods, Wells, and Springs; in which (before all other) Nature seems as if she had, for man’s wonder, affected a not intelligible variety, so different, so remote from conceit of most piercing wits; and such unlooked-for operations both of their first and second qualities (to use the School phrase of them) are in every Chronographer, Naturalist, and Historian (ib. 59).

Without a trace of humour, the “experimental philosopher” Robert Hooke, in his Micrographia of 1665, aimed to remove the very idea of certain springs as wonders altogether.

The same Spring may be fed and supplyed by divers Caverns, coming from very far distant parts of the Sea, so as that in one place be high, in another low water; and so by that means the Spring may be equally supply’d at all times. Or else the Cavern may be so straight and narrow, that the water not having so ready and free passage through it, cannot upon so short and quick mutations of pressure, be able to produce any sensible effect at such distance. Besides that, to confirm this hypothesis, there are many Examples found in Natural Historians, of Springs that do ebb and flow like the Sea: As particularly, those recorded by the Learned Camden, and after him by Speed, to be found in this Island: One of which, they relate to be on the Top of a Mountain, by the small Village Kilken in Flintshire … Which at certain times riseth and falleth after the manner of the Sea. A Second in Caermardenshire … (ut scribit Giraldus) … The Phaenomena of which two may be easily made out, by supposing the Cavern, by which they are fed, to arise from the bottom of the next Sea (Hooke 1667, 27).

He goes on to deal with the Newton well in the same manner. The age of the natural wonder was drawing to a close. The dawning, more self-consciously scientific, age was to be that so wonderfully represented by Sir Thomas Browne’s popular Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or, Enquiries into Very many received Tenents And commonly presumed Truths, popularly known as Vulgar Errors (1646 and many subsequent editions). This was designed, according to Browne’s modern editor Sir Geoffrey Keynes, “to combat the popularity of a large variety of erroneous beliefs” (Browne 1970, “Introduction”). In the opening words of the Pseudodoxia:

Would Truth dispense, we could be content, with Plato, that knowledge were but remembrance; that intellectual acquisition were but reminiscential evocation, and new Impressions but the colourishing of old stamps which stood pale in the soul before. For what is worse, knowledge is made by oblivion, and to purchase a clear and warrantable body of Truth, we must forget and part with much we know (ib. 227).

It is interesting, not to say salutary, to recognise how very few of the learned people who wrote about Ffynnon Leinw had ever seen the well. That had probably been necessary for it to retain its natural wonder reputation; the end of the natural wonder age with the triumph of the age of the Vulgar Errors allowed other aspects of Ffynnon Leinw’s history to be brought to the fore, and a new model to be proposed – one rather closer, it may be, to the actual facts, and certainly one more in keeping with the dawning Gothick and Romantick sensibilities of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: Ffynnon Leinw comes belatedly to be understood as a holy well.

References

Anon., Cambrian Traveller’s Guide, ed. 1, Stourport: George Nicholson, 1808; ed. 2, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown, 1813

Anon., “The Parish of Mold”, 3 parts, The Cambro-Briton vol. 1, London: 1819, 136-43, 179-84, 298-300

Anon., “Extracts from a MS of Ancient Date, giving some Customs and Usages in North Wales”, Archaeologia Cambrensis 40 (1885) 150-6

Anon., “Obituary, The Rev. Elias Owen of Llan y Blodwel”, Archaeologia Cambrensis 56 (1901) 322-4

Browne, Sir Thomas, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, Selected Writings, London: Faber and Faber, 1970

Camden, William, ed., Anglica, Normannica, Hibernica, Cambrica, a veteribus scripta [&c], Frankfurt: 1603

Camden, William, Britannia; sive Florentissimorum Regnorum, Angliae, Scotiae, Hiberniae, & Insularum adiacentium ex intima antiquitate Chorographica descriptio, Frankfurt: Johann Bringer, 1616

Camden, William, rev. Edmund Gibson, Britannia: or a Chorographical Description of Great Britain and Ireland … Translated into English, with Additions and Improvements, second ed., vol. 2, London: Awnsham Churchill, 1722

Carlisle, Nicholas, A Topographical Dictionary of the Dominion of Wales, London: 1811

Cartwright, Jane, Feminine Sanctity and Spirituality in Medieval Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008

Cathrall, William, The History of North Wales [&c], vol. 2, Manchester: 1828

Cox, Phil, “The Lost Chapel of St Leonard”, 1970: accessed 10/12/2015 on the Caer Alyn Archaeological and Heritage website, http://caeralyn.org

Davies, Ellis, Flintshire Place-Names, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1959

Davis, Paul, Sacred Springs: In Search of the Holy Wells and Spas of Wales, Llanfoist: Blorenge Books, 2003

Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c.1400-c.1580, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992

Edwards, J,M., Flintshire (Cambridge County Geographies), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914

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Farmer, David Hugh, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, ed. 5, Oxford: University Press, 2003

Giraldus Cambrensis, tr. Richard Colt Hoare, The Itinerary through Wales and The Description of Wales, London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1908

Gray, Madeleine, Images of Piety: The iconography of traditional religion in late medieval Wales (BAR British Series 316), Oxford: Archaeopress, 2000

Gruffydd, Eirlys a Ken Lloyd, Ffynhonnau Cymru. Cyfrol 2: Ffynhonnau Caernarfon, Dinbych, Y Fflint a Môn, Llanrwst: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 1999

Gruffydd, Ken Lloyd, “The Manor & Marcher Lordship of Mold during the Early Middle Ages, 1039-1247”, Ystrad Alun: Journal of the Mold Civic Society 1 (Christmas 2000) 3-21

Hooke, R[obert], Micrographia: or some Physiological Description of Minute Bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon, London: James Allestry, 1667

Hooper, Richard, ed., The Complete Works of Michael Drayton, vols 1-3 (Poly-Olbion), London: John Russell Smith, 1876

Jacobus de Voragine, tr. William Granger Ryan, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, vol. 2, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995

Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1954

Jones, J. Colin, Gresford Village and Church: The history of a border settlement, Wrexham: J. Colin Jones, 1995

Lewis, Samuel, A Topographical Dictionary of Wales, ed. 3, vol. 1, London: S. Lewis and Co., 1848

Lloyd, John Edward, and R.T. Jenkins, eds, The Dictionary of Welsh Biography down to 1940, London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1959

Lloyd, Nesta, “The Correspondence of Edward Lhuyd and Richard Mostyn”, Flintshire Historical Society Publications 25 (1971-2) 31-61

Lhuyd, Humfredus, Commentarioli Britannicae Descriptionis Fragmentum, Cologne: Johann Birckman, 1572

Lhwyd, Edward, ed. Rupert H. Morris, Parochialia being a Summary of Answers to “Parochial Queries” [&c], part 1, London: The Cambrian Archaeological Association, 1909

Morris, John, ed./transl., Nennius: British History and The Welsh Annals, London and Chichester: Phillimore, 1980

Owen, Elias, 1899: “Ffynon Leinw, an Ebbing and Flowing Well”, chapter in The Holy Wells of North Wales, unpublished manuscript NLW 3290D

Pennant, Thomas, Tours in Wales, vol. 2, London: Wilkie and Robinson [&c], 1810

Powel, David, Pontici Virunnii Britannicae Historiae libri VI; Itinerarium Cambriae, Cambriae Descriptio; De Britannica Historia recte intelligenda Epistola, London: Henry Denham and Ralph Newbury, 1585

Rattue, James, The Living Stream: Holy Wells in Historical Context, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1995

RCAHM 1912, 1914, 1925 = An Inventory of The Ancient Monuments of Wales and Monmouthshire. II. – County of Flint; IV. – County of Denbigh; and VII.- County of Pembroke, London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1912, 1914 and 1925

Rees, Eiluned, and Gwyn Walters, “The Dispersion of the Manuscripts of Edward Lhuyd”, The Welsh History Review 7, no. 2 (Dec. 1974) 148-78

Richter, Michael, Giraldus Cambrensis: The Growth of the Welsh Nation, rev. ed., Aberystwyth: The National Library of Wales, 1976

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Spalding, Ruth, The Improbable Puritan: A Life of Bulstrode Whitelocke, 1605-1675, London: Faber & Faber, 1975

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Down the well you go! The curious Monk’s Well near Southam

This year I will finish my book on Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire a county which has been surprisingly rich in fascinating sites and last summer I had the pleasure of doing a field trip with fellow wellie and member of the Holy wells and sacred springs of Britain Facebook Group and admin of the Holy, ancient and roadside wells of Warwickshire group Steve Bladon as we explored a number of sites around Rugby. Perhaps one of the most unusual wells is found at Watergall Bridge on the outskirts of the parish is the Monk’s Well (SP 418 548).

The Monk’s Well is not marked on the map as such but its location can be surmised by the presence of a blue W above an old farm house off the A423 road. A footpath went from the road, past an old farm house and directly to the well or rather veered a little to the left but close enough to have a quick look anyway. However when we arrived there, there was no sign of a path beyond the gate. As we pondered map in hand our next move, the farmer appeared. He was curious of what we wishing to do but as soon as he learnt we were interested in the well he became very welcoming and told us about the history of his house which appeared to have been once a manor house with the remains of the walls of a very large garden being visible to the side of the house. The farmer gave us permission to explore the well; he added that he used to go down into it when he was a teenager but hadn’t looked inside for years. He knew of the legend an unusual one, and one I had not read associated with any British holy well.

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A hidden well

Climbing the hill where the spring was marked on the map in blue lettering the first significant site we encountered was the large conduit house. This is a substantial brick building, an arch approximately eight metres in diameter over a large rectangular pool of clear water, 14 by 25 metres. Originally the date 1618 was over the arch but this has now been lost. It is a substantial structure.

Climbing further up to the site of a well one is greeted by a modern metal drain cover. Not very promising. But carefully lifting it a shaft can be seen. This shaft itself is remarkably well made being made of dressed stone with stones projecting out allowing someone to climb down into the well, the spring of which appears to arise around two metres into the ground.

The bottom of the well is rather unusual being about 37 metres across and again well made of dressed stone with a stone seat. The spring arises beneath a rectangular slab of stone. It is the seat which is of interest. A pipe conveys the water away to the conduit house which itself supplied the house below. The earliest record of both sites appears to be C. J. Ribton-Turner is his 1893 Shakespeare Land:

“About a quarter of a mile west of the house is an eminence with an irregular hollow forty yards across and oft. or 6ft. deep, in the centre of which is a singular rectangular pit lined with dressed stone, having angle stones on two sides to facilitate the descent. It is 7ft. 7inches. deep, 2ft. square at the top, and 4ft. at the bottom, where there is a stone trough through which the water flows from a spring in the hill above.”

 

A Monk’s penance

As stated the seat if on interest for an oral tradition records that the monks inhabited the nearby manor house and were sent down into the well as a form of penance explaining the seat. An unusual form of penance but in line with other traditions perhaps of immurement. Evidence for the tradition that transgressing monks were somehow incarcerated in walls is scant however a discovery of a skeleton found with a book and candle behind a wall in Thorney Abbey Lincolnshire may well record it. However, was there ever a religious community at the site? The only scant evidence is that records show that early in the 13th century Henry son of William Boscher gave to the monks of Combe Abbey land on Heidune for building a new mill, and a little later John de Lodbroke gave 3 acres ‘below the mill’, this being evidently a windmill It is also recorded that on 14 February, 1227, the prior and monks of Coventry were granted in perpetuity a weekly market on Wednesdays at their manor of Southam (Suham) and a yearly fair at Coventry on the feast of St. Leger and the seven following days. However, this does not suggest there was any property here. A tradition records that they may have had a grange there. The local legend was known by the owner of the land but he believes there was never a religious house here the land being owned by the Spencers in medieval times. But it seems unlikely they had enough monks that would need such a bespoke penance.

Perhaps a better alternative is that the custom remembers the time when a hermit lived by the spring in a chamber, maybe the surviving chamber, protected from the elements. As the start appears never to have been investigated archaeologically. There are the lumps and bumps of a lost village not far from the spring although interesting not really near enough to have had the settlement settled around it, it feels. J. Ribton-Turner is his 1893 Shakespeare Land is more prosaic

“On the north side is a recess with a seat in it, probably to accommodate the person who cleared the trough.”

Whatever the truth it is the most unusual of sites in the county and perhaps the oddest legend in the country. Interesting in an area noted once for a large lake, hence the name Watergall, gall deriving from an Old English word for watery, it is not alone. Before the farm near the road is a mineral spring of which is noted by the owner of the farm that there were plans to develop it into a spa in the 1920s with full details being published locally but I have yet to find them. It arises in dilapidated wooden shed in a rectangular basin. Iron chalybeate water can be seen but the flow is sluggish.

Guest blog post: Ffynnon Leinw – Holy Well or natural wonder by Tristan Gray Hulse (part two)

It is a pleasure to present Tristan Gray Hulse’s second part of his monograph on Ffynnon Leinw

On the Tuesday of Holy Week 1188 Giraldus and Archbishop Baldwin rode from Bangor to Rhuddlan Castle, where they were entertained for the night. On Wednesday Baldwin preached the Crusade in Rhuddlan, before saying Mass in St Asaph cathedral, after which his party rode on to spend the night at Basingwerk Abbey, near Holywell. On the Thursday they rode to Chester. At some point (Giraldus’ mention is made between his accounts of Tuesday evening and the events of Wednesday, so that he probably heard it at Rhuddlan on Tuesday night) they were told of a spring not far from Rhuddlan which ebbed and flowed twice daily with the tides, but which was also liable to rise and fall frequently throughout the day. Humphrey Llwyd identified Giraldus’ unnamed spring with an unnamed ebbing-and-flowing well in Cilcain parish; adding that the spring was observed to dry up at a certain time of the year. Llwyd’s identification of Giraldus’ spring with the Cilcain well was followed by David Powel, who named the latter as Ffynnon Leinw; and Camden followed Powel in locating an ebbing-and-flowing spring in the parish of Cilcain, without naming it. Richard Mostyn and, after him, Edward Lhwyd, suggested that Ffynnon Asa, in Cwm parish, as being closer to Rhuddlan, was a more plausible match for Giraldus’ spring; also noting that Ffynnon Leinw no longer ebbed and flowed.

Giraldus’ topographical notices in the Itinerarium were almost entirely anecdotal, apparently dependent upon the casual comments of his hosts; the hit-and-miss character of this kind of information-gathering can be assessed from the fact that, although he spent a night at Basingwerk, he has no account of St Winefride’s Well, Holywell, although its fame was by then long established in north-east Wales and the northern Marches – its absence is best explained by assuming that no-one happened to mention the Holywell well to Giraldus during his few brief hours at Basingwerk.

Ffynnon Leinw and Ffynnon Asa were not the only ebbing-and-flowing wells in Wales. Giraldus had mentioned another one in his Itinerarium Cambriae, at Dinefwr (I, 10: Giraldus 1908, 74). Francis Jones wrote that ebbing and flowing was “a claim common to many Welsh wells”. (Jones 1954, 53: Jones noticed the claim for a Ffynnon Fednant, in Caernarfonshire – ib. 154; Llandyfeisant Well, Carmarthenshire, i.e., the Dinefwr well – p. 171; Ff. Asa and Ff. Leinw, in Flintshire – 178, 180; Ff. Maen y Milgi, Llandrillo, in Merioneth – 193; two wells at Chepstow, Monmouthshire – 196; and St Non’s Well, at St Davids, Carncwn Well, at Newport, Ff. Lygaid, at St Davids, and Pencw Wells, at Goodwick, all in Pembrokeshire – 210, 212, 213, 216.) James Rattue (1995, 114) notes that such wells were reported in England, and were particularly attractive to antiquarian writers such as Camden; on p. 117 he quotes Camden quoting an ode by Sir John Stradling to an ebbing-and-flowing well at Newton, in Glamorganshire. (This is St John’s Well, Newton; Jones 1954, 183, listed the well, but missed the ebbing-and-flowing claim, and Stradling’s poem.)

Less than two miles from Rhuddlan, Ffynnon Asa is a plausible identification for Giraldus’ spring; Ffynnon Leinw, rather less so. But, given the sheer number of wells for which such claims were made, it cannot be certain that Giraldus’ spring should be identified with either Ffynnon Asa or Ffynnon Leinw. What is certain is that the ubiquity of Camden’s Britannia guaranteed that a well in Cilcain parish – more exactly identified by Powel with Ffynnon Leinw – was for centuries identified as being fed by an ebbing-and-flowing spring.

So far as I am aware, the claim of regular twice-daily ebbing and flowing has never been established for any of the many springs for which the claim has been made in the past. What is probably being witnessed by such claims is a common but irregular fluctuation in water levels created by sustained periods of more or less rainfall, observed casually, from time to time, by persons who noted different water levels each time they had cause to visit the well, and invoked the example of the universal regular tidal ebbing and flowing as an explanation of a local phenomenon. In certain instances it may be that one has to do with a periodic spring, dry for part of the year, but returning after prolonged rainfall; certainly this seems to be what Humphrey Llwyd was recording for the Cilcain well.

Flintshire is famous for its wells, which owe their existence to the Carboniferous Limestone that constitutes its central plain. This rock is porous and the water percolates it till it comes in contact with impermeable shale or clay, where it accumulates and finds its way again to the surface through some of the many fissures … Ffynnon Leinw, “the flowing well,” in Cilcain parish, was at one time an intermittent spring, flowing at regular intervals, owing to syphon action, but it has long lost this peculiarity (Edwards 1914, 25, 27).

This and related phenomena are common in the local limestone landscape. Numbers of the rivers and streams flowing through Cilcain parish run underground for some distance at certain times of the year; as the Parochialia noted:

All their rivulets dive. [It names the Alun, “underground abt 3 quarters of a mile” (it sinks at a place below Cilcain village called Hesp Alun, “the dry Alun”); the Fechlas, “underground hlf a mile it breaks forth at a place therefore call’d tarth y Dŵr” (Tardd y Dŵr, “eruption, or issue, of water”); and the Cain, “dives for hlf a mile more and so to Alen within the P’ish”.] They have severall other Rills that dive (Lhwyd 1909, 80-1).

(The overflow from Ffynnon Leinw drains into the Fechlas; Tardd y Dŵr is two-thirds of a mile west of the well: SJ 175 675. Tardd y Dŵr and Ffynnon Leinw are both in the former Cilcain township of Dolfechlas.) The places of their re-emergence would all exhibit greater or lesser volumes of water, depending on the rainfall. With regard to Ffynnon Leinw, more careful observation (as suggested by Richard Mostyn and Pennant) would have cleared up the popular suggestion of any twice-daily ebbing and flowing.

The suggestion here is that Ffynnon Leinw, before its final drying-up as a result of mining locally (cf. RCAHM 1912, 16; Davies 1959, 65 – if indeed it has really dried up; it would seem still to flow periodically: cf. Davis 2003, 71), was a periodic spring whose flow varied with the rainfall, and which often ceased to flow altogether during drier periods of the year. This idea is perhaps reinforced by the name of the well. The element leinw has caused placename scholars a number of problems (cf. e.g. Davies 1959, 65), but it may simply relate in some way to the verb llanw or llenwi, “to fill”, and to the masculine noun llanw, “influx”. (The ll > l is simply the regular lenition, following the feminine noun ffynnon, “well”; in just this way the personal names Mair and Mihangel mutate to give Ffynnon Fair and Ffynnon Fihangel. ) It is in this sense that Pennant understood the element, when he translated Ffynnon Leinw as “the flowing well”. Professor Hywel Wyn Owen has commented on the name:

The form leinw cannot be explained as a noun or adjective. Most Welsh speakers would know leinw from Psalms 84.6 ‘y glaw a leinw y llynnau’ [“the rain also filleth the pools” – AV]. That was in the old translation … The Psalms use leads me to suspect that the well was originally y ffynnon a leinw ‘the well which fills’. In time the relative pronoun was omitted leaving us with y ffynnon leinw > Ffynnon Leinw (pers. comm. to TGH, 14 December 2015).

The name would thus seem to reference the sudden filling of a well with the recommencement of a periodic spring after heavy rain. It would seem not to carry any inevitable sense of a regular ebbing and flowing like the sea’s tides, but only of flowing; though doubtless the secondary use of the noun llanw for “the flow of the tide” would facilitate any popular misinterpretation of such periodic springs as regularly ebbing and flowing.

References

Anon., Cambrian Traveller’s Guide, ed. 1, Stourport: George Nicholson, 1808; ed. 2, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown, 1813

Anon., “The Parish of Mold”, 3 parts, The Cambro-Briton vol. 1, London: 1819, 136-43, 179-84, 298-300

Anon., “Extracts from a MS of Ancient Date, giving some Customs and Usages in North Wales”, Archaeologia Cambrensis 40 (1885) 150-6

Anon., “Obituary, The Rev. Elias Owen of Llan y Blodwel”, Archaeologia Cambrensis 56 (1901) 322-4

Browne, Sir Thomas, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, Selected Writings, London: Faber and Faber, 1970

Camden, William, ed., Anglica, Normannica, Hibernica, Cambrica, a veteribus scripta [&c], Frankfurt: 1603

Camden, William, Britannia; sive Florentissimorum Regnorum, Angliae, Scotiae, Hiberniae, & Insularum adiacentium ex intima antiquitate Chorographica descriptio, Frankfurt: Johann Bringer, 1616

Camden, William, rev. Edmund Gibson, Britannia: or a Chorographical Description of Great Britain and Ireland … Translated into English, with Additions and Improvements, second ed., vol. 2, London: Awnsham Churchill, 1722

Carlisle, Nicholas, A Topographical Dictionary of the Dominion of Wales, London: 1811

Cartwright, Jane, Feminine Sanctity and Spirituality in Medieval Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008

Cathrall, William, The History of North Wales [&c], vol. 2, Manchester: 1828

Cox, Phil, “The Lost Chapel of St Leonard”, 1970: accessed 10/12/2015 on the Caer Alyn Archaeological and Heritage website, http://caeralyn.org

Davies, Ellis, Flintshire Place-Names, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1959

Davis, Paul, Sacred Springs: In Search of the Holy Wells and Spas of Wales, Llanfoist: Blorenge Books, 2003

Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c.1400-c.1580, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992

Edwards, J,M., Flintshire (Cambridge County Geographies), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914

Evans, J., The Beauties of England and Wales: or, Original Delineations, Topographical, Historical, and Descriptive, of each County, vol. 17 (North Wales), London: J. Harris [&c], 1812

Farmer, David Hugh, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, ed. 5, Oxford: University Press, 2003

Giraldus Cambrensis, tr. Richard Colt Hoare, The Itinerary through Wales and The Description of Wales, London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1908

Gray, Madeleine, Images of Piety: The iconography of traditional religion in late medieval Wales (BAR British Series 316), Oxford: Archaeopress, 2000

Gruffydd, Eirlys a Ken Lloyd, Ffynhonnau Cymru. Cyfrol 2: Ffynhonnau Caernarfon, Dinbych, Y Fflint a Môn, Llanrwst: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 1999

Gruffydd, Ken Lloyd, “The Manor & Marcher Lordship of Mold during the Early Middle Ages, 1039-1247”, Ystrad Alun: Journal of the Mold Civic Society 1 (Christmas 2000) 3-21

Hooke, R[obert], Micrographia: or some Physiological Description of Minute Bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon, London: James Allestry, 1667

Hooper, Richard, ed., The Complete Works of Michael Drayton, vols 1-3 (Poly-Olbion), London: John Russell Smith, 1876

Jacobus de Voragine, tr. William Granger Ryan, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, vol. 2, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995

Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1954

Jones, J. Colin, Gresford Village and Church: The history of a border settlement, Wrexham: J. Colin Jones, 1995

Lewis, Samuel, A Topographical Dictionary of Wales, ed. 3, vol. 1, London: S. Lewis and Co., 1848

Lloyd, John Edward, and R.T. Jenkins, eds, The Dictionary of Welsh Biography down to 1940, London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1959

Lloyd, Nesta, “The Correspondence of Edward Lhuyd and Richard Mostyn”, Flintshire Historical Society Publications 25 (1971-2) 31-61

Lhuyd, Humfredus, Commentarioli Britannicae Descriptionis Fragmentum, Cologne: Johann Birckman, 1572

Lhwyd, Edward, ed. Rupert H. Morris, Parochialia being a Summary of Answers to “Parochial Queries” [&c], part 1, London: The Cambrian Archaeological Association, 1909

Morris, John, ed./transl., Nennius: British History and The Welsh Annals, London and Chichester: Phillimore, 1980

Owen, Elias, 1899: “Ffynon Leinw, an Ebbing and Flowing Well”, chapter in The Holy Wells of North Wales, unpublished manuscript NLW 3290D

Pennant, Thomas, Tours in Wales, vol. 2, London: Wilkie and Robinson [&c], 1810

Powel, David, Pontici Virunnii Britannicae Historiae libri VI; Itinerarium Cambriae, Cambriae Descriptio; De Britannica Historia recte intelligenda Epistola, London: Henry Denham and Ralph Newbury, 1585

Rattue, James, The Living Stream: Holy Wells in Historical Context, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1995

RCAHM 1912, 1914, 1925 = An Inventory of The Ancient Monuments of Wales and Monmouthshire. II. – County of Flint; IV. – County of Denbigh; and VII.- County of Pembroke, London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1912, 1914 and 1925

Rees, Eiluned, and Gwyn Walters, “The Dispersion of the Manuscripts of Edward Lhuyd”, The Welsh History Review 7, no. 2 (Dec. 1974) 148-78

Richter, Michael, Giraldus Cambrensis: The Growth of the Welsh Nation, rev. ed., Aberystwyth: The National Library of Wales, 1976

Schwyzer, Philip, ed., Humphrey Llwyd “The Breviary of Britain” with selections from “The History of Cambria”, London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2011

Spalding, Ruth, The Improbable Puritan: A Life of Bulstrode Whitelocke, 1605-1675, London: Faber & Faber, 1975

Spalding, Ruth, ed., The Diary of Bulstrode Whitelocke, 1605-1675, Oxford: Oxford University Press/The British Academy, 1990

Speed, John, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain, London: 1611/12

Stephens, Meic, ed., The New Companion to the Literature of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998

Walsham, Alexandra, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity, and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland, Oxford: University Press, 2011

Whitelocke, R.H., Memoirs, Biographical and Historical, of Bulstrode Whitelocke [&c], London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1860

[Williams, John] Ab Ithel, “Holy Wells”, Archaeologia Cambrensis 1 (1846) 50-4

Williams, Moses. Humfredi Llwyd, Armigeri, Britannicae Descriptionis Commentariolum [&c], London: William Bowyer, 1731

Wynne, Glenys, Cilcain, Mold: Cilcain W.I., 1944

 

Ffynnon Fair, Llandecwyn by Tristan Gray Hulse

In 1994 after a period of absence Source was reborn under the helm of Tristan Gray Hulse and Roy Fry. Under their stewardship Source became more academically minded and in particular focused more on monograms of specific sites which were merticulously researched. Tristan himself due to his monastic background contributing some important pieces as well as questioning some long held folklore views in the subject such as head cults. After source went on to research and write a number of scholarly pieces on saint cults and holy wells including a piece on votive offerings at St Trillo’s well in the folklore journal as well as being involved with St Winifred’s well in Holywell. So it is with great pleasure and a great honour that his unpublished monogram on a north Welsh well – and how Welsh wells doyen Francis Jones could get it wrong – in my celebration of Source. 

Immediately to the north of Plas Llandecwyn, on the side of an ancient lane leading uphill towards the church of St Tecwyn, Llandecwyn, Merioneth, a short distance away, is the holy well of St Tecwyn. It is still just as it was described 100 years ago by the Royal Commission Inspecting Officer.

Ffynnon Decwyn … The antiquary Edward Lhuyd, or a correspondent of his, writing about the year 1698, has the note “Fynnon Deckwyn by plas Ll. Deckwyn not far from ye church”.

Near Plas Llandecwyn is a spring which flows into a cavity about 3 feet at the front and 2 feet at the back by a breadth of 21 inches; the water stands in its rock cistern to a depth of 14 inches, and as there is a slight but steady overflow the water is kept sweet. There can be little doubt that this is the well noted by Lhuyd, but the name of Tecwyn is now not connected with it … Visited, 15 August, 1914 (An Inventory 1921, 82, § 214).

The name Ffynnon Decwyn is apparently now in common use for the well once more.
The Inspecting Officer continued his entry by noting

a spot about 330 yards north-east of the church where is a hole about 21 inches square cut into the rock at the level of the road, water dripping within and overflowing the road”.

This unnamed well also survives much as described, though it is now covered with small rough slabs of stone, for protection. And a few yards south of the lych-gate is another spring, rising at the northern or upper end of what appears to have been a regularly rectangular tank, now choked with water-weeds. It is initially tempting to guess that one or other of these unnamed springs represents a further sacred well claimed for the parish, Ffynnon Fair, listed by Francis Jones in his The Holy Wells of Wales (1954).

Jones, citing Edward Lhwyd in reference, included the well in his list of Ffynhonnau Mair in Merioneth in his gazetteer of Welsh holy wells:

Ff. Fair … 2. ‘By ye Church’ in Llandecwyn parish – Lhuyd Par. ii. 105 (Jones 1954, 191).

However, it turns out that this well is no more than a “ghost”, created by Jones’ trusting but careless reading of Lhwyd in the at-this-point potentially confusing editing of the Parochialia texts by Rupert Morris. As the printed edition stands (Lhwyd Paroch., part 2, 1910), the entry for “Llandekwyn” runs from p. 103 to the foot of p. 106, and notices “Fynnon vair by ye Church” on p. 105 and “Fynnon Deckwyn by plas Ll Deckwyn not far from ye church” on p. 106. The Llandecwyn entry is immediately followed by that for “Mantwrog” (top of p. 107), which, as it stands, consists of only six lines.

But it is clear that a section of this arrangement (from p. 104 line 7 to p. 105 line 30, reproducing pp. 131-133 of the original Lhwyd ms as seen and edited by Morris) has been displaced in the original Lhwyd ms; this section all refers to Maentwrog parish, not to Llandecwyn, and must originally have followed and completed the now minimal Maentwrog entry (at the bottom of original ms p. 137) printed at the top of Lhwyd 1910, p. 107. This restores the original reading, a complete text, of the normal Parochialia format, for Maentwrog immediately following a complete text of familiar format for Llandecwyn (thus, originally: Llandecwyn, ms pp. 129-130, 136-137; Maentwrog, ms pp. foot of p. 137, 131-133).

This explains why the mentions of Ffynnon Decwyn and Ffynnon Fair are separated in the Morris printed text. It also means that “Fynnon vair by ye Church” was in Maentwrog parish, not in Llandecwyn; and that, therefore, there is no mention of a Ffynnon Fair in Llandecwyn parish. The Llandecwyn Ffynnon Fair is an inadvertent creation of Francis Jones, who then duplicates the well by separately noticing the Maentwrog well, from the Royal Commission Inventory for Merioneth:

Ff. Fair … 7. About 80 yards SE of Maentwrog church: it supplied the neighbouring houses – Anc. Mon. Mer. (Jones 1954, 191).

The Maentwrog well still survives, basically as per the Inventory:

Ffynnon Fair … This well is situated on sloping ground about 80 yards south-east of the church, and north of a terrace called Bron Fair. It is now enclosed in a square slate cistern, and [in 1914 still, but no longer] supplies the neighbouring houses (An Inventory 1921, 154, § 498).

Tristan Gray Hulse
25 April 2016

References

An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire. VI. County of Merioneth, London: HMSO, 1921
Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1954
Lhwyd, Edward, Parochialia, being a summary of answers to “Parochial Queries in order to a Geographical Dictionary, etc., of Wales”, ed. Rupert H. Morris, part 2, London: The Cambrian Archaeological Association, 1910

The holy spring of the poet – St Aldhelm’s Well, Doulting

“Sowey… risith… at Doulting village owte of a welle bering the name of S. Aldelm.”

John Leland in his Itinerary, c. 1540

Crocker (1796) describes it as

“a fine spring of excellent water, enclosed in a recess in an old wall, and which to this day is called St Adhelm’s well”.

 

Who was St Aldhelm?

William of Malmesbury tells us that St Aldhelm died at Doulting, where the church is dedicated to him, and William of Malmesbury describes his cult here in the Deeds of the Bishops of England, 1120s. However, he does not make reference to a well and as he shows interest in where the saint’s name is remembered it appears likely here were not any traditions at the time at the well. He is well known to write poetry but probably not as Caroline Sherwood in her 1994 piece for Source, the Divine Juggler of Doulting stand in the cold water and entertain his visitors juggling!

Farbrother (1859) describes how:

‘a spring… darts under cover of an arch; then it tumbles headlong over some descent… I have heard of a late learned divine, who was in the habit of walking thither from Shepton, regularly every morning, for the purpose of bathing his eyes, and whose sight was said to have been much benefited thereby’.

Glastonbury Abbey, owned the land and may have built the original structure. It is believed that in 1867, the Revd Fussell, had the wellhead and basin improved with the old dressed stone from the old church, some of the material not being used being left in the vicinity. This appeared to confuse, Dom Ethelbert Horne in his 1923 Somerset Holy Wells. He this suggested there was a wellhouse and a bath here:

‘The ground about it is strewn with dressed and well-cut stone… The water comes out under two solidly made arches… In front of these arches, a long channel or trough, originally lined with dressed stone, extends for some yards’.

Thompson & Thompson (2004) in Springs of Mainland Britain felt that the Victorian alterations:

“were probably confined to a few additional courses of stonework, on the top of which sat a cross and two finials. They can be seen in two photographs taken c.1929 but all this superstructure was later removed”.

A place of pilgrimage

Horne (1915) notes that:

“In 1896 the Stratton-on-the-Fosse village congregation made a pilgrimage to this well, and again in 1909, the year of the twelfth centenary of St Aldhelm’s death, a second and much larger pilgrimage, joined by Catholics from Wells and Shepton, made its way to Doulting.”

No such organised pilgrimages exist as far as I am aware, but Sherwood in 1994   noted that the well was under the management of the Shepton Mallet amenity Trust and stated that:

“It was customary until recently to use the well water for all christenings…Fred Davis, of the Amenity Trust, told me that less than ten years ago a Shepton woman of his acquaintance bathed her child’s severe eczema with the water from the well and the condition cleared… The well continues to be a place of pilgrimage and, from time to time, local people have decorated it with flowers and candles.”

Today it is still much visited by the curious and its setting in a small copse is a delight in the spring

Down from the Piskies – Pelynt’s Nun’s Well, Cornwall

When I first became enchanted with holy wells in the 1980s it was the old engraving of this well which enchanted me the most but it took a few years to get to see it. The mysterious building overshadowed with by a venerable tree. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells put it succinctly:

“Its position was, until very lately, to be discovered by the oak and bramble which grew upon its roof. It is entered by a doorway with a stone lintel, and overshadowed by an oak. The front of the well is of a pointed form, and has a rude entrance about 4 feet high, and is spanned above by a single flat stone, which leads into a grotto, with an arched roof The walls on the interior are draped with the luxuriant fronds of spleen-wort) hart’s tongue, and a rich undercovering of liverwort. “

A pin well

Hope (1893) states that:

“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.”

When I last visited in the 1990s I could see no pins but the chamber was full of tea candles suggesting regular visitation. The most noticeable feature is its delightfully intricate basin, possibly the most ornate in situ for any British holy well, so much one wonders where it came from. QuillerCouch notes:

At the farther end of the floor is a round granite basin with a deeply moulded brim, ornamented lower and all round its circumference with a series of rings, each enclosing a Greek cross or ball. The water must be supplied from an opening at the back; for none runs into it from the rim, and yet it is always full. If emptied, it soon fills again.”

It may have been from a chapel nearby:

“The well, and a small chapel above it, the remains of which are some indistinct mounds, and a vallum, artificially made, on the north and south sides (occasionally the plough turns some shaped stones and roofing slates), were dedicated to St. Nonnet, or St. Nun, a holy woman said to be the mother of St. David, and the daughter of a Cornish chief. She is also said to have lived and died at Altarnun.”

A warning to the sacrilegious

Perhaps the most fascinating legend associated with the well is about its rather ornate basin. Hope (1893) states that:

“An old farmer (so runs the legend) once set his eyes upon the granite basin and coveted it, for it was no wrong in his eyes to convert the holy font to the base uses of a Pigsty and accordingly he drove his oxen and wain to the gateway above for the purpose of removing it. Taking his beasts to the entrance of the well, he essayed to drag the trough from its ancient bed. For a long time it resisted the efforts of the oxen, but at length they succeeded in starting it, and dragged it slowly up the hillside to where the wain was standing. Here, however, it burst away from the chains which held it, and, rolling back again to the well, made a sharp turn and regained its old positions, where it has remained ever since. Nor will anyone again attempt its removal, seeing that the farmer, who was previously well-to-do in the world, never prospered from that day forward. Some people say, indeed, that retribution overtook him on the spot, the oxen falling dead, and the owner being struck lame and speechless.”

Image may contain: plant and outdoor

Hope continues to paint a picture which continues to inflict our holy wells:

“Though the superstitious hinds had spared the well, time and storms of winter had been slowly ruining it. The oak which grew upon its roof had, by its roots, dislodged several stones of the arch, and, swaying about in the wind, had shaken down a large mass of masonry in the interior, and the greater part of the front. On its ruinous condition being made known to the Trelawny family (on whose property it is situated), they ordered the restoration, and the walls were replaced after the original plan.”

And as such it was restored.

Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and nature

St Nonna’s or Piskie?

Hope (1893) notes that:

“The people of the neighbourhood knew the well by the names St. Ninnie’s, St. Nun’s, and Piskies’ Well. It is probable that the latter is, after all, the older name, and that the guardianship of the spring was usurped at a later period by the saint whose name it occasionally bears. The water was doubtless used for sacramental purposes; yet its mystic properties, if they were ever supposed to be dispensed by the saint, have been again transferred, in the popular belief, to the Piskies.”

Now Piskies are the Cornish version of Pixies and interestingly I noticed the high concentration of midges- were they the Piskies I wonder? Quiller Couch continues:

“Dr. O’Connor tells us that in some parts of Ireland there is a belief that by some of their ceremonies at the patterns, or pilgrimages to wells, the daoini maethe {i.e., fairies) were propitiated. In the basin of St. Nun’s may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who avail themselves of the curative qualities of its water, or consult it for intimations of the future. I was curious to know what meaning the. unlettered peasantry attached to this strange but common custom ; and on asking an old man at work near, was told that it was done to get the good-will of the piskies,’ who after the tribute of a pin ceased to mislead them, gave them good health, and made fortunate the operations of husbandry.— T. Q. C.”

Quiller-Couch’s and my visits 100 years apart

This well when visited in July, 1891, was in a very fair state of preservation, though not now used for any particular purpose. A thorn and a nut tree overshadow it, and ivy creeps from between the masonry. Ferns and mosses grow luxuriantly in the interior, where the trough still stands into which were cast pins in former days ; but the surrounding ground was in such a marshy state to make it impossible to approach near enough to examine any carving which may be on it. A woman, on directing us to the spot, smilingly spoke of having visited the well for the purpose of divination in her younger days ; an old man, who stood by, remarked that no one he had ever heard of knew when or why the well was built there, — but that was very possible, — he had heard that people had attempted to move it, with no success.”

My visit in July 1991 found it an enchanting place, obviously the scale shocked me at first as I expected it to be bigger based on the sketch in Hope. The tree which had been overshadowing it was gone and that lost some of the atmosphere. But it still was an enchanting place, especially creeping inside where that old basin remained and there was a feeling of being with the piskies..

Thanks for Carol Ellis for the 2017 photos!

A Warwickshire field trip: Holy and healing wells of the county’s South-west

Warwickshire does not perhaps have the greatest reputation for holy and healing springs and appears to be hide in the shadows of nearby Gloucestershire. However, my research into the county has revealed there’s more to the county’s healing waters than Leamington Spa. Here are a few lesser known sites towards the Banbury side of the county; any further information on them is gratefully received. Hopefully the book is out this year!

KNIGHTCOTE

Many of the county’s healing springs are compared to Leamington, the Stockwell is no exception, being saline in nature it was bound to be compared such, as Leamington was. However, that is as far as the comparison goes for little other than it made a decent cup of tea is recorded of it. It currently arises in a three feet by three foot roughly square chamber with stone surrounds. Old railings enclose the spring head and steps go down from the road.                

It is worth contemplating on the thoughts of Bob Trubshaw on the origin of Stockwells Old English stoc meaning ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ being the apparent same derivation as stow. That would give the site an explanation perhaps for the belief in its healing waters but it could equally derived from the place cattle stock were watered or even less interesting Old English stocc for ‘spring by stumps’, a description which could describe it today.

RATLEY

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Not far away is St. Anne’s Well which arises a small stone chamber beside the footpath from the hamlet of Arlescote. The well consists in a shallow square basin and flows downhill forming a muddy area beneath. A stone set into the back of the fabric reads:

“ST. ANNE’S WELL / Reparavit M. L / A. D. / MCMXI

However, beyond that nothing is recorded. It is likely to be ancient as it found below an iron-age earthwork and clearly the footpath past it is of some age and past significance, yet the early forms of the OS only record spring.

Considering that the hamlet above the well is called Knowle End it is possible that the legend recorded considering fairies moving the stone is related to this site and not the Knowle End in Birmingham as reported by folklorists. Again little is recorded but it must have been thought well enough in the 1930s considering how far the spring is from any houses. A site to visit in the winter or spring however, because it gets very overgrown!

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UPTON

The next holy well is a considerable find and it is surprising that no photo exists of it or more recorded, considering it survives in a popular National Trust garden and is quite strikingly unique. Found in the Bog Garden in the grounds of Upton Hall is an 18th century stone Monk’s Well. The Bog Garden consists of a number of ponds originally Stew ponds fed by this spring improved in the 17th century. Trace the flow back and be ready for a surprise. For the spring erupts from the base of a rock face in a cave/grotto and flows over mossy stones to fill the ponds. The spring head is enclosed in an early C18 red brick vaulted chamber (listed grade II)  set into the rock face laying c 100m west of the House. All in all pretty unique and surprisingly unheralded. Indeed the Bog Garden was closed off when I visited but the gardeners were happy to allow me over to see it. I cannot say whether access is achievable without asking however. The well is so named because Upton was held in the twelfth century by the canons of St Sepulchre’s at Warwick but it may have a grange property as no one has worked out where any house would have been located. The site does not have any recorded properties and it is only holy by its name association

BURTON DASSETT

The last well is a bit of an enigma, in the deserted Burton Dassett village in Northend, is found a substantial well head which has claims to be a ‘Holy Well’  although the provenance is unclear. Burgess (1876) in his Warwickshire History simply notes that it was used for baptism and immersion. Whilst Bord and Bord (1985) Sacred Waters appear to be earliest to refer to it as such stating:

“the holy well with its stone cover will be seen on the left-hand side of the lane as you approach the church”.                                           

The present stone well house is of a considerable size being constructed of local red sandstone around 1840 in a Grecian style. The central doorway is party below ground level and has steps down into a square chamber. Over the stone lintel but the worn instruction is an inscription with carved flowers. It possibly states 1534 but it was not clear. It is evident that the well was part of an estate improvement but when and by whom? And did it exist before? If it does say 1534 that is an early date for a landed estate improvement. It certainly is still visited by well wishers as coins are found in its waters. Sadly, despite a substantial water supply it did not stop the demise of the village and now only the substantial church remains, which incidentally is worthy of a visit.

With many more sites yet to explore…Warwickshire is proving to be another interesting County.