Surrey is not the first county associated with holy wells, although James Rattue’s 2008 Holy Wells of Surrey makes it clear there are a number. Visions of the Virgin Mary are! So when we have a holy well and a vision of the Virgin Mary seen together it is an interesting site – but how old and genuine as a holy well is it? Especially curious as Rattue notes it appears in most surveys of holy wells.
Easily found following the sign from the church yard towards the river the well is certainly very picturesque, if a little muddy to get to. The well is unusual in being enclosed in two brick built chambers each covered by a metal lid. The water does not look particularly refreshing being rather stagnant and full of leaves. Over the well is an ornate wooden and tiled cover. A.J.A. Hollins in his 1933 A History of Dunsfold compiled from various sources gives an account of its repair and what was there beforehand:
“Until 1933 it consisted of two brick lined cisterns of uncertain date with wooden lids in a very poor state of repair. Now by the efforts of the Dunsfold Amateur Dramatic Society there has been erected over it a shelter or shrine of old oak with a shingled roof, and on one side of it is an exquisitely carved figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Child.”
Hollins’ (1933) gives some further details:
“The Holy Well lies on the bank of the river below the church and is approached by a short lane. The water which is singularly pure and cold even in the height of summer, is derived from two streams which have their origin somewhere in the hill on which the rectory stands. These unite just above the Well. From one of them at one time the water supply to the rectory was obtained, a one pony power circular pump being employed. With the advent of Company’s water this has long been derelict.”
A real holy well?
A. Judges (1901) in his Some West Surrey villages is also clear of its ancient origin and perhaps suggests a monastic association:
“As to one tradition connected with the spot, however, there can be no doubt. The well between the church and the river was for generations considered a holy well. Even to this day it is credited with medicinal properties, and people come for the water as a cure for sore eyes. The Rector, the Rev. W. H. Winn, favours the theory that it was on account of this well that the church was built on its present site, some little distance from the centre of the village. Water is scarce in the Weald, and this is the only spring-well rising to the surface of the ground which Mr. Winn knows of in the whole country. It never runs dry, and rises within 4 or 5 feet of the river, with which, however, it has no connection, except in the way of overflow. I ought, perhaps, to add here that the orchard near the mill was known as the Abbot’s Garden, and an old house on it, removed in late years, is supposed to have been connected with the church or some old monastery.”
Similarly, Hollins (1933) is unequivocal:
“Isn’t it significant, bearing in mind what has been said about the places usually chosen by the early peoples for their settlements, that the church is built near the river (which becomes the Arun before flowing into the sea at Littlehampton) practically beside the Holy Well, on one Roman road and very near another? As regards the well, its fame has spread down to modern times, and there is very little doubt but that it was sacred from the very earliest times….. it would form the site of a shrine for primitive worship in heathen days, and when the Christian era began, the builders of the first church would place it, as church builders frequently did, on an already sacred site, and merely substituted their ideas for those already existing. All the oldest churches in this country built on heathen sites have wells in or near them, for the Ancient Britons and their successors needed water for purification rites. The Well under Christianity would naturally have the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and this in turn would give the name to the Church.”
The usual claims, heathen worship, possibly Roman adoption by the early church, a theme we will return too in a moment.
Doubt was creeping in to Hollins’ (1933) work:
“The actual history of the Well is obscure. What can be stated is that from the very earliest times it was a sacred spot….There is a strong tradition that the Blessed Virgin has appeared at the Well, and one old belief is that she is always in residence in Dunsfold. The Well was an ideal spot for heathen worship, and when the Christian era began, the worship of St Mary at the Well would naturally follow, and thus give a lead to the church. But the Well was here first. By the very nature of its water, it can be said for certain that its use must have occasioned what no doubt would have seemed miraculous cures in the days when medicine was little understood.…..The shrine was dedicated by the Bishop of Guildford on Sept. 29th 1933.”
James Rattue (2008) hits the nail it on the head:
“This ought to be a clear-cut case of a holy well linked to a church, and, given its location, probably a comparatively late dedication like the Mary Wells we find in the Kentish Weald. But perhaps it’s even later than that. On the 1897 O.S map it appears merely as a tank, not even a well.”
Most holy wells are marked on old O.S maps if not present today, even those which have been missed off are still springs or wells, not tanks. A tank suggests a modern structure, a purely functional one, one established for farming not faith. Of course, not being mentioned on the map does not 100% go against it being a holy well but it does not give further support. Was it just a local mineral spring established in the age of spas? Hollins’s (1933) notes:
“Possessing notable qualities for the cure of diseases of the eyes – this has recently been confirmed by analysis.”
Hollins’s (1933) gives further details on its properties and its analysis:
“The water is very strongly impregnated with chlorine, a fact only recently discovered, when a noted Harley Street eye specialist took the matter up from a scientific point of view, and this is extremely interesting confirmation of the fact that the water has always been held to be marvellous for eye diseases.”
Indeed, the earliest reference to the site by Lewis Andre in his 1897 Dunsfold Church in the Surrey Arch Collections states simply:
“in the vale south of the church, there is a well, which is said to have been resorted to until recently for medicinal purposes.”
Although a mineral spring is very likely after all, Surrey had a large number of these and many were of nationwide fame. Maybe we shall never know.
Yet Hollins’s (1933) notes
“There are other holy wells in England — and in Surrey — but an old book in Cambridge University Library specifically mentions Dunsfold as being one of four in England.”
Have we all missed something? Neither Rattue, Harte or I have ever located this book which mentions specifically Dunsfold. If it could be found the authenticity of the well would not be in question.
A site of modern pilgrimage
Hollins (1933) notes that:
“Even in modern times it has been a place of pilgrimage, especially by Roman Catholics, and there is indication that this has always been the case. Roman Catholics have been heard to say that one day they will get the church back into their fold. Its dedication to St Mary and the presence of the Well are, of course, the reason for this. From London too even in recent times have pilgrimages been made.”
Whether these pilgrimages occur is unclear
Visions of the Virgin Mary
Judges (1901) notes that:
“A statement has been made that Dunsfold Church is a special object of pilgrimage by Roman Catholics. One ought, perhaps, to say in passing that the sole warrant for this assertion is the fact that the church is visited several times every year by parties of Roman priests from the seminary at Wonersh, and that on one occasion, some little time since, a numerous band of visitors came from London, the explanation being their belief that the ‘ Blessed Virgin Mary was always in residence at Dunsfold.”
Always in residence, a curious statement but delve deeper and it appears it refer to as Rattue places it ‘vague oral traditions’ of the Virgin Mary appearing in the vicinity, as referred to in the Guidebook. The Surrey Advertiser of the 14th October 1933 states she appeared to those who sought the spring’s water. England is not renowned for recorded visions of the Virgin, and indeed the only one appears to be the most famous, Walsingham, if we do not include the discredited Our Lady of Surbiton which begun in the 1980s.
Of course, new age pagans may suggest that some visions record a pre-Christian tradition of a pagan water deity. Certainly this is an ancient location with an old 1500-year-old yew which may have been the original focal point explaining the remote location of the church. So the site may have been pagan and this may be true, but the details are very vague when concerning the well. More likely is that this was a local attempt to create their own ‘Walsingham’ at a time when the Catholic church was beginning to re-establish itself more firmly in the region, after all an Anglo-Catholic movement had re-established itself in 1921 under Father Alfred Hope Pattern. The most famous healing spring associated with a vision of the BVM is of course Lourdes and it is tempting to make a connection. Did the local St John’s Seminary want to establish a local Lourdes? Did they need a well for their ablutions and a local story, possibly from ‘modern’ mystics visiting the area or completely concocted to justify giving the well the association with the Virgin?
In conclusion, I think it is easy to agree with Jeremy Harte (2008) in his English Holy who believes that:
“The cult at the well has the flavour of 1930s Anglo-Catholicism, and seems to have been created then.”
Good for them I suppose you could say and similarly ask does it really does not matter that its provenance for it is difficult to find such a delightful sacred spring?