Blog Archives

The Cream of the well…a holy and healing well custom…

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.

Sand, sea, Sangria and….sacred springs: In search of Ibiza’s spring heritage

Ibiza is perhaps not the first place people think about when they think about ancient monuments but an antiquarian’s visit will be repaid by Phoenician sites, such as the necropolis, underground churches and cave shrines. To this one can add the Island’s unique water heritage: pous and fonts.

The island is rich in such sites, the pous appear to be artesian in construction, with water extracted via buckets from deep shafts, whereas the fonts are mainly covered spring heads and as such the water can be easily accessed.  Architecturally both are similar being surmounted by dome like structures, although the term chapel is more often used for the fonts.

There would appear to many hundred sites, although I never seen an official document that describes them all, the best sources being tourist maps (yes they do note them although sometimes not very accurately) and some websites mainly of course in Catalan or Spanish. I am going to restrict myself to six of the most notable, interesting or easiest to find, a give an overview

Unlike England, the wells appear to remain a focal point to village activities, these are Pagesa and are dancers held usually around patronal days at the wells in a traditional Catalan fashion but with Castonellas rather than casternets and the men doing all the work. I was privileged to see one of these dances at the picturesque Font des Verger, a beautiful well chapel with clear water. It was certainly easier to find it on the festival day as lights guided us down, one the earlier day we couldn’t find it! Beyond the dances little else is clear regarding legends or folklore, Pou de Gatzara from Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera is said to frighten horses and perhaps is haunted.  Pou de Lleo, which has given its name to a delightful bay was said to have healing waters, but I could not find it. Aging the sites is difficult as well, Font de Peralta, a delightful pinky-red well house set beside a rather busy road is said to be dating from the 1600s. The water arises beneath the road surface and is reached by steps Sant Rafal’s Pou de Forada is a covered well with a large front opening. The two stone basins beneath it set there for animals are said to be old olive mills of Punic-Roman time Similarly the long basin at Rou Roig is said to be a Roman Sarcophagus but it is doubted by some. Certainly the most picturesque well is found close to one of the island’s most picturesque towns, the Font de Balafia arises at the base of a cave and has been enclosed in a large chapel well house with steps down to its water. A magical and special place and if you visit only one well in Ibiza visit this one!