Picture the scene, waiting at the church with fresh buckets in hand, a collection of faithful villagers. The clock strikes 12 O’clock, it’s New Year’s and the race is on….to get to the holy well to draw what was called the Cream of the Well….the most valuable water available at that time of the year… In Northumberland, Birtley’s Crowfoot well was one such site and the water was to be kept in a bottle, and as well as giving good luck was believed to stay fresh throughout the year. Three wells at Wark on Tyne taking the first draft would allow a person to fly or pass through a keyhole!
Mackinlay (1893) notes that the tradition in Scotland, where it may have been stronger, where there was considerable rivalry between farm girls and on their way they would chant:
The flower o’ the well to our houses gaes, An I’ll the bonniest lad get. (This term flower of the well I shall refer to in a moment.)
In Wales the lucky lady was called the Queen, and this may perhaps indicate some pagan association with the tradition. The Welsh had a similar tradition and the water best between 11 and 12 on New Year’s eve was sprinkled into houses. Here it was known as the crop of the well and often a box covered with mistletoe or holly was used to contain it. Unlike that of Northumberland, the water would lose its powers until the next New Years although in some sites it would turn to wine. On the Isle Of Man, it is reported by Roeder (1904) of the quarrel between neighbours over the Cream of the well:
“Such as were envious of their neighbour’s success, and wished to draw away their prosperity, creamed the well they drew water from. This act was believed to be particularly cacious in ensuring a rich supply of milk and butter to the one who had cows, and performed the act on the well of those who also owned cows. All the utensils used in the dairy were washed with part of the cream of the well, and the cows received the remainder to drink. It was gone through in some districts on the last night of the year.”
The tradition was also undertaken in fishing communities where a handful of grass was plucked and thrown into the pail containing the water. This appears to be related to the related custom of Flower of the well, where it is said that by throwing a flower or grass on the spring to tell others that you had got their first. The furthest south example appears to be a Alconbury in Herefordshire where the St Ann’s Well, although the date has slipped. Here it was thought to be more effective in curing eye problems in the water being drawn from the well after midnight on Twelfth Night. The spring was said to produce blue smoke on this date.
The tradition does not appear to be noted further south than the Herefordshire example above and mainly in areas affected by neighbouring Celtic areas such as Wales and Scotland. Similar traditions occur at Beltaine/May day further south indicating that the 1st of January was a rather unEnglish tradition. New year was more often celebrated in the spring in the South, although even in Scotland at some wells, the cream of the well could be obtained on the first Sunday of May..however this is another tradition to discuss at a later day.
For those interested in old customs and ceremonies would be interested in a new blog I am starting in this January, Traditions ceremonies and customs in which every month I hope to cover a surviving ancient custom, a lost custom and a revived custom.