The county is not well known for its holy wells, however a number of interesting sites can be found; one of these being the eponymous holywell of this settlement. This settlement on the banks of the Stour owes its name to the presence of a clear and never failing spring, called simply the Holy Well (TL 336 707) that arises at the junction of gravel and Ampthill clay. This well was may have been known in Roman times, indicated by the discovery of Roman coins and pottery in the churchyard and rectory grounds. These are now in the Norris museum. First mentioned in a will of 986 when an Athelstan Mannessune bequeathed to Ramsey Abbey ‘de terra… de Haliwella’. By the time of the Domesday 1086,, the settlement Haliewelle is noted with the names Haliwell, 1231, Halliwell, 1350 and even Hallowell, 1601, before settling as Holywell in the 1700s.
It maybe that the Christian history is associated with the 7th Century Bishop of Persia, St Ivo, whose relics were held at the nearby town of St Ives. Pilgrims would rest and drink here after or before taking the ferry across the Stour to and from the St Ives’ Shrine. Whether the dedication of the well was the same is unclear, as the well lies the Parish church of St John the Baptist, it is possibility that it too was dedicated to St John.
Despite its age, Tebbutt (1938–47) states that:
“I cleared outthe basin in 1936, and only found one penny dated 1905.”
The present structure was constructed in 1845 by Rev. S.B. Beckwith, the rector, which covered the mediaeval 13th century stone ring (Kelly (1910) notes 1847). This structure is an attractive yellow brick dome. A metal plaque is set into the arch recording its name. However, direct access to the well is impossible as a black metal frame covers the entrance; however the spring can be sampled, as it gushes forth by some force below the well. Until the 1940s this well was the only source of domestic water and was also still used for baptism.
The spring had a reputation for healing, Terbutt (1938-27) notes:
“About 1933 the late MrsYeatherde saw a woman sitting with her feet in the well to cure a foot complaint. In1935 I was told… that people often came to bathe for such complaints as sore eyes.In the previous year a boy with a sore on his forehead that would not heal, came and bathed it with water from this well, and it at once healed up.”
The site was restored in the 1980s, as three elms, whose roots were undermining the structure and making it thus unsafe, were damaging the fabric. Hence after the death of these trees due to Dutch elm disease, it was decided to restore and repair the well. Volunteers and the Parochial Council set to remove the trees and after measuring the structure and making a template of the arch, together with photographs: the repairs could be done, after diverting its flow of course.
It was found that the foundations and walls were in a very bad state and this required removing the structure down to the original 13th Century stone ring. Care was taken as to save as many of the old bricks, and these were incorporated into the new structure with matching old bricks supplied by a local builder. To eradicate future problems of tree damage, the area around the well was cleared right back and four ft high retaining walls were constructed from old facing bricks backed with engineer bricks and the surrounding well area covered in crazy paving. Further improvements to ensure safety, including new fencing and easier access to the spring outlet were made and the area was improved with the planting of 800 spring bulbs. Today thanks to the restoration the site is a pleasing place for contemplation.
An annual well dressing ceremony was also introduced and this is carried out on the Patronal day of 24th June, that of St John the Baptist since 1982. It involves a mud and dried flow technique, the Derbyshire technique, and the placing of a wreath around the arch. In 1982 the motif was peace with a dove and church and a yellow rose as the designs either side of the arch’s finial. Then, as since, the dressing receives the blessing of the Bishop of Ely or Huntingdon and the display remains for ten days. Today the well entrance is filled by a plaque also dressed and in 2012 the Royal Jubilee is the topic.