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Will the real patron of St Gudula’s Well stand up?

First noted by P.F.S Amery in his 1882 Old Ashburton: Being Recollections of Master Robert Prideaux, (Attorney-at-Law) 1509–1569 as:

‘Gulwell, a short distance down the Totnes road, in the corner of the vicar’s glebe field, which was called after St Gudula, the ancient patroness of blind folk. A stone cross… stood by… The tall stone still gives the name of Stone Park to the vicar’s field’.

St Gudula’s is one of the best known of Devonshire wells but whether it is a holy well or back derivation of its name is a matter of discussion as well shall discuss.  

Who was St Gudula?  

The most likely source recommended by Sabine Baring-Gould in his 1899–1902 A Book of the West is a little known 6th century Celtic evangelist who is claimed to have converted Brittany called St. Gudwal as Terry Faull, 2004 Secrets of the Hidden source, emphatically states:

“local interpretation of St. Gulwell who is also known as St. Wulvella, and was sister of Saint Sidwell of Exeter. They are claimed to have been the daughter of royalty being probably born in Wales.”

However, the site is dedicate to St Gudula who was born in Hamme, Flanders in around AD 648 and was associated with healing the blind. This appears to be what the plaque at the well claims:

 ‘This Well, The Waters Of Which Are Said To Be Good For Weak Eyes, Was Dedicated To St Gudula, The Ancient Patroness Of The Blind. The Cross (Probably 14th Century) Was Removed Prior To 1510. It Was Restored, Re-Erected, And Presented To The Parish Of Ashburton, 1933’.

However, this seems very unlikely and it would be more reasonable to assume that some learned antiquarian, probably Amery, has associated the saint with the site due to its name and properties – the name is being more likely be descriptive about it forming a gully.

The origins of the cross

William Crossing in his 1902, The Ancient Stone Crosses of Dartmoor and its Borderland, says:

‘we shall not find the cross here, but at a farm a little further on, which bears the same name as the well… This consists of the shaft only, and… I learnt in 1892 from the late Mr Perry, the owner of Gulwell, who was then eighty-three years of age, that it was in its present situation in the time of his grandfather’

Another site?

Even more confusing is that there is a well at Gulwell Farm and it is possible that this the real site especially if we re-read what Crossing states he suggests that the cross was brought from another site. “and if it really was brought from the spring it must be long ago”, does that suggest that someone decided to transfer the site to another spring and to emphasise it move the cross! Faull (2004) states it was returned to its original site in 1933 as noted by the plaque of course.

The current situation

Even more confusing is that there is a well at Gulwell Farm and it is possible that this the real site especially if we re-read what Crossing states he suggests that the cross was brought from another site. “and if it really was brought from the spring it must be long ago”, does that suggest that someone decided to transfer the site to another spring and to emphasise it move the cross! Faull (2004) states it was returned to its original site in 1933 as noted by the plaque of course as noted by the 10th March 1933 Western Times. It recorded that it was re-erected by some unemployed men after being recovered from the location where it had been for several generations. It also notes at the same time it was planned to restore the well but there was not enough money available.

Guest blog post: Walking Between Worlds – a Secret Little Book of Devon’s Ancient and Holy Wells by Alex Atherton

This month I celebrate 5 years blogging about holy wells and healing springs. So this month to celebrate…I am having a break (!) all the posts this month are guest blogs. The third post is from Devon artist Alex Atherton, who has recently authored a delightful book which takes Devon’s beautiful wells weaving her artistic magic to draw the reader in. In this guest blog she explains how she became entranced by holy wells!

Often forgotten, occasionally neglected and mostly overlooked by visitors and locals alike, Devon’s beautiful and magical ancient and holy wells are worth just as much attention as those in other counties that are perhaps more well known. Indeed, many people are surprised to learn that Devon has such a rich and diverse well heritage, even though they may live close to and walk past local examples every day of their lives. And before I embarked on this project, I was one of these people – unaware that I regularly drove past at least two examples on the lanes around my home on Dartmoor, like Druids Well near Chagford (see drawing).

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The inspiration for this project came initially from an encounter with an ancient spring at Lydford whilst working on another art project early in 2015. Little did I realise at the time that this chance discovery would be the start of an enchanting journey that took me to some of the most remote, beautiful and hidden corners of Devon in search of its ancient and holy wells.

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As an artist living on Dartmoor, I normally paint landscapes in oils that capture the many moods of the moor. But my growing curiosity about Devon’s wells presented me with an exciting new challenge, and provided an opportunity for me to explore the world of pen drawing. Initially, I saw these drawings very much as a personal project, but as I continued on my journey of discovery, and produced more and more drawings, the idea of publishing a ‘secret little book’ started to take shape.

With a copy of Terry Faull’s ‘Secrets of the Hidden Source’ in one hand and my sketchbook in the other, I travelled the length and breadth of the county on a personal pilgrimage, descending through dark, narrow paths in shaded woodlands, scrambling down steep paths alongside coastal cliffs, carefully negotiating boggy fields and quietly searching the back lanes of peaceful villages.

Many of the wells are associated with local legends. When the Devil arrived in Widecombe one day, so the story goes, the locals gave him water to drink from Saxon’s Well, just outside the village centre. The water burned as he swallowed and with his wrath he brought down the church steeple. When Joseph of Arimathea tapped the ground near the Exmoor coast with his staff, water sprang up from the earth – and today an imposing 19th century structure marks the site deep in the oak woodland.

Others were highly regarded in the past for their healing properties. The three distinct troughs at Leechwell in Totnes may offer you relief from skin problems, snake bites and disorders of the spirit, if you know which is which of course!

It was hard not to be moved by some of the structures that I came across and their setting. For example, Fice’s Well is a wonderful structure, but its stark location on the bleak moor left me with a feeling of loneliness and a sense of regret leaving it behind.

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 Sometimes I would find a hidden jewel where I least expected it. This was particularly true of Cathedral Well at St James Park railway station, Exeter. When I visited the area late on a winter Sunday afternoon, there was a remarkable peace despite its urban address, helped by the quiet and nostalgic railway-side allotments opposite the sadly bricked-up well building.

It seemed on occasion that some wells just did not want me to find them! The first time I travelled to see the haunting Eyewell on the coast path at Morte Point I was defeated by failing light as the sun set; the second time I was turned away by gale-force winds and lashing rain. Only on the third attempt did I manage to reach this enigmatic and moss-drenched well!

 

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I have cherry-picked 40 of the most enchanting little structures for the book and I hope these captivating places entrance readers as they have entranced me, and that the illustrations will inspire others to seek out the county’s well heritage so that they too might discover what it is like to walk between worlds…

 

Further details about the book and how to obtain it can be found on my website at http://www.alexatherton.co.uk.