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In the shadow of a giant…St. Augustine’s Well of Cerne

The copyright on this image is owned by Peter Beaven and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

“Augustine and his worthy companions were wandering through an empty land, where no water was. Heat and drought and weariness weighed on them… True, Augustine had drunk too copiously of that sweet well which flows to eternal life for him to hanker after those earthly wells where those who drink will thirst again; nor did he take much pains for the food that decays, being nourished instead by that which endures in life eternal… But then he thought how good it would be for the land to be flooded by the goodness of heaven, sparkling with the true spring of life. He fixed his staff in the ground, and when he drew it forth, out surged a stream of pure water. All gave praise to God as they tasted of these waters, and drank till they were satisfied. This is the spring which today feeds many streams, so that a district which was once barren is now thickly populated”.

Shorter Life of St Augustine by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, around 1090

A later legend states:

“T”.he shepherds complained to him that there was neither water nor beer. So he asked them whether they would like water or beer. They answered “Water”. He then struck the ground and lo! water appeared

Both accounts states the legend which explains Dorset’s most famous holy well. A holy well which as an ancient site, is much overlooked by the swarms of tourists visiting the famous Giant and deserves to be better known. Goscelin notes further that:

one of the brethren at Cerne Abbey was a parish priest, whose business it was to celebrate the sacred mysteries for the laity. He was worn down by such weakness that he was given up for dead. The onset of night, and of exhaustion, brought some sleep to the poor wretch. Then, in his sleep, he saw the merciful figure of Augustine standing before him, in archbishop’s vestments, shining with bright embroidery. He spoke to the trembling invalid, putting him at his ease with kindly words, and told him to get up and go to St Augustine’s well. When he got there, he was to say the fiftieth psalm three times over with true devotion, and three times, after each psalm, he was to dip himself in the well and wash in its waters. Do this, he said, and you will be restored to life and health. And you can be sure that it is I, Augustine himself, who is telling you to repair to my spring. Now comes the miracle! The priest awoke immediately, and half-dead as he was, he threw himself out of bed. Leaning on a stick, he hobbled off to take the bath as instructed. The men of the infirmary thought he had lost his wits with the onset of death. They tiptoed after him, making no attempt to stop the man, but wondering where he was heading. The sick man bathed himself with a threefold washing in the waters of the well, saying the psalm three times, as he had been told to. And, so rapid was the remedy of his holy doctor, that the man who had set out as an invalid went home again healthy, snatched from the jaws of death”.

The well survived the dissolution of the Abbey it was associated with as John Gerald notes in 1625 in his Survey of Dorsetshire:

“His Well you may see at this Daye in the Abbie Church Yarde, heretofore covered with a Chappell dedicated to St Augustine, and from him likewise was it called St Augustine’s Well”.

The well survived the dissolution of the Abbey it was associated with as John Gerald notes in 1625 in his Survey of Dorsetshire:

“His Well you may see at this Daye in the Abbie Church Yarde, heretofore covered with a Chappell dedicated to St Augustine, and from him likewise was it called St Augustine’s Well”.

It is interesting to note that it was covered with a Chappell which may refer to a traditional building akin to something like St. Winifred’s Well (but probably no where as grand!) or a well house, which is more likely. Whichever it is, the site no longer covered by any construction and consists of a spring filled channel associated with an upright stone with a circular cross upon it.

What’s in a name?

It would be apparent that by the late 1700s it was in need of repair as churchwardens’ accounts of 1761, refers to a payment of £1 5s for:

 ‘John Thorne’s Bill for work about St Paston’s Well’.

Paston’s corruption form of St Augustine’s Well no doubt! However, some confusion has arisen concerning a supposed second name – Silver Well. However, this name may record a second site located at Stockwood which has an alternative name of St. Edwold and the too not the same.

A wishing and curative well

“if anyone looks into St Austin’s Well the first thing on Easter morning he will see the faces of those who will die within the year”.

St Augustine’s Well for some unknown reason has collected its fair share of folklore. In recent years it has even become a rag well! Moule (1888) in his ‘Dorset folk-lore’ in the Folk-Lore Journal states that:

“folks hold to the belief that St Austin’s Well… still works wondrous cures. I have had a case told in all detail while sketching the lovely spring”.

In another copy of Folk-Lore, March (1899) in this ‘Dorset folk-lore collected in 1897’, is informed that:

“a man now living, named Vincent, aged fifty-five years, had a crippled child. Every morning, for several months together, Vincent carried his child, wrapped in a blanket, to St Austin’s Well, and dipped it into the well, and at last it was cured. Sore eyes are healed by bathing them, and feeble health is restored by drinking curative. A farmer used to go down to this well every morning and drink a tumblerful of the water.”

To obtain a wish an unusual ritual was developed. Hall (1925) in their Concerning Cerne notes that:

“The prescribed usages for “wishing”. Pluck a laurel leaf – there will be one handy – fold it into a cup, fill it from the spring, then standing on the little parapet, face the Church, drink, and before swallowing the water, make a secret wish”.

Interestingly, in Dacombe’s 1935 Dorset Up Along and Down Along she records the strangest piece of folklore that: 

 “There are eleven trees on the way to the well, representing the eleven apostles – only eleven, because Judas betrayed our Lord”

Udal (1922) associated the well with a spring in the parish were babies could be cured if dipped in at sunrise, however this may be another site. All in all a very rich site for legends and folklore. A few moments here has a peaceful nature to it and to be highly recommended…after all it even has a seat.