On the outskirts of Loughborough is an area called holywell, but pronounced ‘holly’, I have found very little about the well which gave its name. Trubshaw (1990) in his book on holy wells of Leicestershire and Rutland mentions it and there is a post with a modern picture on Megalithic Portal, but shows a rather boring brick structure and not he elliptical basin the former mentions. So I decided to investigate the twin sites of the well and it’s associated Holywell Haw.
A cursory glance at the map shows that it is virtually swallowed up by Loughborough University (hence the honours joke) is the estate of Holywell Haw, the present farmhouse taking its name from a spring nearby. Of the house itself it probably began life as a hostel for those lost in the most substantial Charnwood forest which has retracted around it. However by 1180 it had become a hermitage owned by Garendon Abbey and is first noted by the name of Holywell Haw, the later deriving from haw meaning enclosure, the same origin as hawthorn. Potter in his “History and Antiquities of Charnwood Forest”. (1842) notes it was described in a grant by Robert de Jort to the abbey the site being described as heremitorium de Halliwellhaga. The Testa de Nevill, 13th century records ‘a dairy, with a small wood, called Haliwelle Hawe’, which by the 14th century the Leicester Abbey purchased from a Henry Lord Beaumont ‘a certain parcel of wood called Holy-well Haw for £28′. They appear to have developed the area to what can be seen today: fishponds and moats, and probably used the site as a grange and possible a diary. What remains today is mainly 15th century with fragments of a medieval structure such as gothic doorways and timbers. Whether it was Holywell Haw or Hall is unclear. It has been blamed on the Ordnance Survey and indeed some blunders have been done in the past. However, it is possible that a 19th century owner, March Philips, had some sort of pretensions for the building and thought the name was better. By the eighteenth century name to Holywell Dyke, an eighteenth-century boundary mark for Charnwood Forest .It is now better known as a farm.
The Holy Well
The spring, is icy cold and never run dry, produces, according to Trubshaw 20,000 galloons a day and is one of the only non-incorporated spring in the Severn Trent catchment classed as A1 Drinkable. Local tradition states that it has medicinal qualities. Nichols (1795–1815) notes:
“The excellent spring is yet preserved”
Potter (1852) notes that it:
“.derives part of its name from a well, to the waters of which, even in recent times, considerable virtues have been attributed.”
However, its most famous legend is said to date from the 15th century
Potter (1852) notes that:
“The popular idea seems to be, that the Comyns (of Whitwick Castle) were great giants. One of them, said my informant, attempted to carry off one of the Ladies of Groby Castle, who left that place for security, intending to take sanctuary at Grace Dieu. Going, however, by a circuitous route, to avoid Charley and Whitwick, she was benighted, and would have perished in the Outwoods, but for one of the Monks of the Holy Well.”
The legend tells how after a considerable pursuit, she upon reaching the hermitage, collapsed and died. A monk then used the water to bring her back to life. Potter (1942) tells the story in verse:
|The oaks of the forest were Autumn-tinged, And the winds were at sport with their leaves When a maiden traversed the rugged rocks That frown over WOODHOUSE EAVES.||The Hermit upraised the stiffened form, And he bore to the HOLY WELL: Three Paters or more he muttered o’er, And he filled his scallop shell.|
|The rain fell fast – she heeded it not Though no hut or home appears; She scarcely knew if the falling drops Were rain drops or her tears.||He sprinkled the lymph on the Maiden’s face, And he knelt and he prayed by her side Not a minute’s space had he gazed on her face Ere signs of life he spied…..|
|Onward she hied through the OUTWOODS dark (And the Outwoods were darker then) She feared not the Forest’s deepening gloom She feared unholy men.||Spring had invested the CHARNWOOD oaks With their robe of glistening green, When on palfreys borne, one smiling morn, At the HOLY WELL’s HAW were seen.|
|Lord Comyn’s scouts were in close pursuit, For Lord Comyn the Maid had seen, And had marked her mother’s only child For his paramour, I ween.||A youth and a Lady, passing fair, Who asked for the scallop shell: A sparkling draught each freely quaffed, And they blessed the HOLY WELL.|
|A whistle, a whoop from the BUYK HYLLS side, Told Agnes her foes were nigh: And screened by the cleft of an aged oak, She heard quick steps pass by.||They blessed that Well, and they fervently blessed The Holy Hermit too; To that and to him they filled to the brim The scallop, and drank anew.|
|Dark and dread fell that autumn night: The wind-gusts fitful blew: The thunder rattled: – the lightning’s glare Showed BEACON’s crags to view.||“Thanks, Father! Thanks! – To this well and thee,” Said the youth, “But to Heaven most, I owe the life of the fairest wife That CHARNWOOD’s bounds can boast.|
|The thunder neared – the lightning played Around the sheltering oak; But Agnes, of men, not God afraid, Shrank not at the lightning’s stroke!||“The blushing bride thou seest at my side. (Three hours ago made mine) Is she who from death was restored to breath By Heaven’s own hand and thine”.|
|The thunder passed – the silvery moon Burst forth from her cave of cloud, And showed in the glen “Red Comyn’s” men, And she breathed a prayer aloud:-||“The Prior of ULVERSCROFT made us one, And we hastened here to tell How much we owe to kind Heaven and thee, For the gift of the HOLY WELL”.|
|Maiden mother of God! Look down List to a maidens prayer: Keep undefiled my mother’s sole child The spotless are thy care”||“In proof of which – to the HOLYWELL HAW I give as a votive gift, From year to year three fallow deer, And the right of the Challenge drift”.|
|” The sun had not glinted on BEACON HILL Ere the Hermit of the HOLY WELL Went forth to pray, as his wont each day, At the cross in Fayre-Oke dell.||“I give, besides, of land two hides, To be marked from the Breedon Brand: To be held while men draw from the Well in this Haw A draught with the hollow hand”.|
|Ten steps had he gone from the green grassy mound Still hemming the HOLY WELL HAW, When, stretched on the grass – by the path he must pass A statue-like form he saw!||The Hermit knelt, and the Hermit rose, And breathed “Benedicite! And tell me”, he said, with a hand on each head, “What heaven sent pair I see!”|
|He crossed himself once, he crossed himself twice, And he knelt by the corse in prayer: “Jesu Maria! cold as ice – Cold – cold – but still how fair!”||“This is the lost de Ferrers’ child, Who dwelt at the Steward’s Hay; And, father, my name – yet unknown to fame Is simply EDWARD GREY”.|
It is thought that after being revived she gave her name to God and became a prioress and some historians link it to a real life account of Eleanor Ferrars whose was carried off. It also has similarity to legends associated with Essex’s Running Well and Kent’s St. Thomas’s well at Singlewell.
The well today
Despite a leaflet mentioning the well from the University, available as pdf, it is a little reticent in regards to whether it can be visited. However, exploring around the back of the enormous Holywell complex a small path passes some gas cylinders and then to a stile. No keep out signs are present so I assumed it was okay to jump over. There almost in front of me is a large brick chamber covered by two large fibre glass up turned boats. These appear to cover the well. Peering between a gap however this rather unpromising edifice reveals something more interesting. The brick chamber encloses an elliptical natural stone or possibly medieval basin, into which a copious flow enters and fills and then flows through a pipe into the brook below. Despite the rather ugly surrounds there is still something ancient and mysterious about this most well known of Leicestershire sacred springs. The local farm, the Holywell Haw, still apparently uses the water and it is regularly checked by the Uni authorities. One hopes it can get a better cover, surely the university could afford a metal grid more worthy of this venerable site.
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