Mermaids are traditionally thought of as a marine phenomena but there are a number of freshwater accounts such as that noted in Herefordshire, three in Suffolk (Bury St Edmunds, Rendelsham, Fornham All Saints) and another in Gloucestershire at Timsbury. The peak district probably because of its remote and desolate landscape claims two!
The first is associated with the Black or Blake Mere a small pond of irregular shape, lying in a little hollow on the summit of the high hill of Morridge, about three and a half miles. from Leek in Staffordshire. The pond appears to have a reputation of being haunted. In the pages of The Reliquary, Camden quoting Nicham, says it is:
“A lake that with prophetic noise doth roar; Where beasts can ne’er be made to venture o’er— By hounds, or men, or fleeter death pursued, They’ll not plunge in, but shun the hated flood.”
Robert Plot in his 1689 Natural History of Staffordshire notes that:
“no Cattle will drink of it, no bird light on it, or fly over it; all which are as false as that it is bottomless; it being found upon admeasurement, scarce four yards in the deepest place; my horse also drinking, when I was there, as freely of it as ever I saw him in any other place; and the Fowls are so far from declining to fly over it, that I spoke with several that had seen Geese upon it; so that I take this to be as good as the rest, notwithstanding the vulgar disrepute it lies under.”
Neither account mentions a mermaid and it is unclear when this creature is first applied to the site. One of the first accounts perhaps is Charlotte S. Burne 1896 notes in her “What Folkore is, and how it is to be collected” in the North Staffordshire Naturalists’ Field Club, Annual Report and Transactions. Two origins for the existence of this mermaid are given. One account states that she was a women ,who during a stormy night was drowned there by her lover after he discovered she was pregnant with his child. Another story suggests that she was a witch and was drowned by the local people. It is said that as she drowned she cursed the person who accused her and days later he was found clawed to death in the pool. Local people state that she can be seen combing her hair and enticing people to their death. She is also said to have warned locals who were draining the lake to check its depth by threatening to flood the local town of Leek – they subsequently stopped!
Perhaps the more famous of the Peak’s merfolk is found in The Mermaid’s Pool a mysterious pool at the foot of Kinder Scout, a strange site which appears to be a relic of pre-Christian water worship particular as the water is said to have healing qualities. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells notes:
“There is a local tradition that a beautiful nymph ….who comes to bathe daily in the Mermaid’s Pool, and that the man who has the good fortune to see her whilst bathing will become immortal.”
It is likely that Hope is sourcing Henry Kirke’s 1869 article “The Mermaid’s Pool” in The Reliquary notes:
“At Old Oak Wood, near Hayfield, Derbyshire, is the Mermaid’s Pool, where a beautiful woman is said to enter the water every day, and whoever has the good luck to see her will become immortal and will never die.”
Hope records a tradition of someone who had seen the mermaid thus:
“The old folk of Hayfield, moreover, have a long story of a man who, sometime in the last century, went from Hayfield over the Scout, and was lucky enough to meet this mountain nymph, by whom he was conducted to a cavern hard by. Tradition adds that she was pleased with this humble mortal, and that he lingered there for some time, when she conferred on him the precious gift of immortality.”
The best time to find visit the Mermaid’s Pool is midnight on Easter eve when she could favour you with your wishes, but if she did not favour you she will drag you to your death!
It is possible of course that local production of methane gases produced willo-the-wisps which were seen as the mermaid but that would ruin a good story would it not? Or perhaps you might argue that someone caught the said mermaid and put it in Buxton museum! – go along and have a look!
Sometimes mysterious creatures at wells and springs have mysterious origins and perhaps one of the most mysterious is Nanny Rutt, who is associated with an artesian well in Math Wood near Bourne, Lincolnshire.
The story tells of a young girl who arranges to meet her lover in the wood and sets out early in the evening and meets an old woman wrapped in a shawl which obscures her face. She warns of the dangers of the wood at night as well as why she should not elope without knowledge of her parents. She ignores this advice and reaches the well where she has arranged to meet her lover. Waiting for a long time she realises her lover is not going to come and it has become very late. With tears in her eyes she becomes hopelessly lost and stumbles upon an overgrown stone house in a clearing and there in its doorway is the old woman who’s face is revealed it the moonlight to be hideous. As the girl runs, the old woman’s shadow paralyses her and her throat becomes so dry she is unable to scream and is never seen again.
How old is it?
An interesting legend, who apart from the name of the Old women is very modern and resembles an ‘urban legend’. What is unclear is why there is a well included. Does this suggest that at some point it had a greater role? Did Nanny Rutt haunt the well? Was she another Jenny Greenteeth? Did the girl actually drown in the well?
Its origin is equally mysterious, neither the authors Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock in their Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Lincolnshire, Volume 5 or Ethel Rudkin in her Lincolnshire folklore , both very thorough folklore collectors in the turn of the last century
According to the Wikipedia entry, the earliest reference is 1920s, but the name Rutt is possibly very old deriving O.F rut the same origin as Latin rugitus both meaning ‘sexual drive’ and perhaps suggest a greater date. The contributor notes:
“It may be possible to suggest an explanation for the story of the disappearance. Perhaps at some date a girl took her developing sexuality into Math wood, met someone who complemented it and was soon taken off to a home for un-married mothers never to return to Northorpe. An explanation was required for the other young people and at a time of reticence about sexuality, Nanny Rutt was invented. If this happened when the use of the French language in England was remembered, the story is medieval. Nanny Rutt could also be based on a real woman who once lived in the wood”
Rutt could also reference rutting or a goat both again very sexualised! Nanny is a common name for a fairy character but equally for someone who might offer baby sitting!
Although the woods still exist I could find any evidence of a well on the 1880 O/S or current map, and according to my correspondence with local historian Rex Needle, he believed the whole story is made up, but when, why and by who and more importantly why include a well, name it after the main character, but do not explain why. In all it is a very confused story. Even more confusing is that since including the well in my work on Holy wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire the well is included in a geocache! Does it exist then?
One of the frequently encountered mysterious creatures near springs and wells, as well as other bodies is called Jenny Greenteeth. In an article in the Transactions and proceedings of the American Philological Association in 1895, Charles P.G. Scott notes in the Devil and his imps remarks:
“Jenny Green-teeth, in the vernacular Jinny Green-teeth, is the pretty name of a female goblin who inhabits wells or ponds.”
The name Jinny Green-Teeth is recorded in the Folk-speech of South Cheshire (1887) and A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Chester (1886) stating that:
“Children are often deterred from approaching such places [as wells or ponds] by the threat that “Jinny Green-Teeth will have them.”
Edwin Waugh notes in 1857 Sketches of Lancashire life and localities
“ lurking in the streams and pools, like ‘Green-Teeth,’ and ‘Jenny Long Arms,’ waiting, with skinny claws and secret dart, for an opportunity to clutch the unwary wanderer upon the bank into the water.”
Often description is given of this goblin and it appears to be restricted to the west of the country, with references made in the Notes and queries around Manchester, Birmingham and as far east as Shropshire. Roy Vickery in a piece on his excellent Plant-Lore blog reports an account from Bebington Merseyside in the 1980s:
“Although Jenny Greenteeth was usually unseen, in about 1920 the bogey which inhabited two pools beside Moss Pitts Lane in Fazakerley, ‘had pale green skin, green teeth, very long green locks of hair, long green fingers with long nails, and she was very thin with pointed chin and very big eyes.”
Moreover it is possible that in Lincolnshire the same goblin is encountered as Jenny Hearn, Hurn or Yonde. This name is found associated with a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. Unlike Jenny Greenteeth the creature is described. In Lincolnshire folklore Ethel Rudkin reports:
“The pygmy propels the dish rapidly across the stream by means of a minute pair of oars, the size of teaspoons. It is said, that having reached shore this being crosses the road and proceeds to browse in the field. ‘Or again it is said that a ‘thing’ is known to come crawling out of the water, having large eyes, and long hair, and tusks a walrus. It goes into the fields to feed. The river bank here curves in the shape of a horse-shoe, consequently a short-cut footpath has been used for years to counteract this bend.”
A possible ancient origin of this creature is suggested by another Lincolnshire location: Jenny Stanny Well a site has appeared to have passed through a number of name changes. Abraham de la Pryme discussed it in his 1680 discussion of Lincolnshire described the well as Julian’s Stony Well and now it is called Stanniwell. The name is suggestive of a Roman heritage.
Here interestingly, the name Jenny Stanny well has been supported by the suggestion that the site is haunted by a ghost presumably of that girl who carries her head under her arm. She is said to have drowned in the water. Is this a confusion of the Jenny Greenteeth tradition?
Interestingly in Preston the goblin is associated with a holy well. In the anonymous 1852 piece A Prestonian, ‘Preston More than Forty Years Ago’ in the Preston Chronicle:
“Near Friargate, and not far from the houses now called Mount Pleasant, was ‘Lady well’, about which the superstitious old women used to tell strange tales of one ‘Jenny Greenteeth’, who was said to be occasionally seen riding on a broomstick, cutting wonderful capers.”
The association of drowning with Jenny Greenteeth is significant as it would seem that the folklore probably developed as a way to warn children off playing in dangerous areas of water. This being done by associating the goblin with algae and duckweed. A note in an 1820s version of Notes and queries records Jenny Greenteeth being a name for duckweed in Birmingham. In A Glossary of the Words and Phrases of Furness (North Lancashire) (1869) she is called
“Jinny-green-Teeth — green conversa on pools.
“green scum on ponds, but supposed to imply the presence of a water-sprite or “boggart”, a terror to children as they pass the pond on which the appearance is seen.”
This is emphasised by an article by A.R. Vickery, Lemna minor and Jenny Greenteeth, in Folklore 94: 247-50, 1983. whose correspondent noted:
“ I was brought up in the Upton/Crenton area of the west side of Widnes in Lancashire (now Cheshire) …It was and still is…a farming area and many of the fields contained contained pits – some of them have quite steep sides Jinny was well known to me and my contemporaries and was simply the green weed Duckweed, which covered the surface of stagnant water.”
Finally, it is interesting the correspondent also notes
“Children who strayed too close to the edge…would be warned to watch out of Jinny Greenteeth, but it was the weed itself which was believed to hold children under water. There was never any suggestion there was a witch of any kind there!”
And such does a folk tradition become diminished! However, it was a clever way to use a common plant of stagnant water to signify dangerous waters – pity it wasn’t used in 1970s Public information films – Dark and dangerous water!
Chigwell on the Essex outskirts of London is a site claimed to have derived its name from a spring called the King’s Well as Samuel Lewis in his 1848 Topography notes:
“within the bounds of the great forest of Waltham and in ancient records is styled Cingwella supposed to imply the King’s Well a purgative spring here from which its present name is derived.”
However did it? According to P. H. Reaney’s Place-Names of Essex the name means ‘Cicca’s well’, Cicca being an Anglo-Saxon personal name. Furthermore, the 18th-century historian Nathaniel Salmon The History and Antiquities of Essex stated that the “-well” element in the name derives from Anglo-Saxon weald meaning wood which would make sense considering its proximity to Hainault Forest. Hence my claim in the book Holy wells and healing springs of Essex that it was
“The King’s well was certainly an ancient site, possibly a pre-Christian origin”
May seem now a little over-enthusiastic!
Philip Morant in his 1763-8 History and Antiquities of Essex gives the earliest account of the well, being found:
“…..behind the wind-mill, among the trees whose water has a purging quality, and the late Dr Frewin used to speak of its flavour….Near the well is a hole wherein the water of the fame nature, perhaps proceeding from the other.”
Morant (1763-8) also suggests that the well was once frequented, but less so by his time. By the end of the 18th century it appears to have become entirely neglected. This situation never improved, as even in 1838, a Professor Booth noted it to be ‘now quite neglected’. This decline lead to its final destruction in the late 1870, when the site was drained, filled in and turfed over, by a Mr. Radley, acting on behalf of the then owner. By the time Christy (1910) visited the site, the well had long gone, but fortunately he too obtained some vital details concerning the well. The well was reached by a private road, although once a public right of way, near a mill pond. Unusually it would appear that the fame of the water differed in regards its appearance, for when yellow it was best only for cattle. He was informed by the older residents of the community that this well laid in a meadow of about thirty acres called ‘Parkfield’, belonging to a Mr. Philip Saville, and near his residence of ‘The Woodlands’. It was situated due south of Forest House, about 300 yards from the road, and not very far from Grange Hill Station. It lay on the steep slope of London clay, lying on the south side of the road.
A description of the site
Fortunately, a description of the site survives. A Mr. Green, who had lived many years in the Parish described the well as a hollow place, bricked around, with steps leading down to the water. Surplus water was relayed to a ditch via pipes. Yet despite its destruction 30 years before, it was still famed in the 1900s. A local man Mr College referred to it as the ‘purging well’. Furthermore a Dr. Reeve, formerly of Chigwell Row, described it as good as any medicine as a purgative.
The site today
In the book Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Essex I recorded that the site was located in Whitehall Close, but there is now nothing to mark it; the area being developed for housing.
Since Morant’s (1763-8) description the whole area has drastically changed. The windmill was burnt down in about the 1850s, and the trees that surrounding the well (part of the old Hanault Forest) were probably cut down even earlier.
However, in 1907 about 50 yards from the reputed site of the well, there was a stagnant cattle pond. Miller Christy and May Thresh’s 1910 A History of the Mineral Waters and Medicinal Springs of the County of Essex believes that this is probably the hollow described by Morant (1763-8). This too has gone.
However, there is some confusion and subsequent research places it more precisely in the rear of the house located at 67 Brocket Way being marked on the land registration map of Redbridge Council shows “Chig Well (site of)”
However, that might not be the whole story! In an excellent article on the Chigwell Row community blogsite called Chigwell derived from King’s Well or Cicca’s Well the jury is out! the author notes:
“I hope to work on a project to commemorate that early past and have it recognised locally. Hopefully a local project will revive an interest in our historical past like the Mammoth replica project has in Redbridge. I have followed the map I bought with local resident Neil Patel who has lived her for over 40 years. We believe that the location of Chig Well would have been in land adjacent to the wells Park School or at it’s rear. I have contacted the school to try and ascertain whether the name of the school is somehow linked to the history of the well listed on the map. A call to the school office was met with short-shrift and the woman who answered said she knew nothing about the origins and nor would other school staff. she said:“The decision to name the school was made by Essex Council.“They gave the school to options and early decision-makers went with Wells Park School.”When pressed on how Essex Council derived the two name options, I was reminded to contact Essex Council. I have contacted the Essex Record Office who is not able to advise me on the origins of the name of the school, but I will ask the officer there and the school again, in hope of clearing up this mystery. Later it would be able to gain access to the rear of the school or the private land next to it, to locate any remnant of the potential well site.”
It seems sad that such a renowned site, that had given the place its central focus and name, should have been destroyed with little regard for its importance. However one does wonder what they have found in the garden of number 67, or Whitehall Close or as the author above states the School!
Why dangerous? St Anne’s Well lies along probably the busiest road of any holy well and thus is difficult to reach safely, and despite being along a road it is easy to miss often being full of litter.
The name St Anne’s Well appears on the 1830 OS map and the parish church is also dedicated to St Anne. It is worth noting that the cult of St. Ann was a later one, arriving in the 14th century. Perhaps E. Mardon’s 1857, ‘Rambles around Bristol’, in the Bristol Magazine and West of England Monthly Review 1 who also has the earliest written record has another origin for its name. For they describe it as:
“the once celebrated medicinal spring, of whose waters Queen Anne used to drink, visiting the village for that purpose.”
Was a then dedicated to Queen Anne and later this was misinterpreted as St Anne? Or vica versa. The reverse seems more likely as it seems odd that the Queen would have visited and the association of her name may be evidence of some attempt to de- Christianise and secularise the spring post-Reformation. Mardon (1857) also records:
“It would appear from the plaque affixed to the spring, that the villagers, in 1790, in grateful remembrance of past honours, named the waters ‘‘Saint Anne’s Well‘’, and the bridge a little further on ‘‘Saint Anne’s Bridge‘”
When R.C. Skyring Walters in 1928 in his The Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of Gloucestershire: Their Legends, History and Topography he noted that on his visit this plaque had been stolen. However, when I visited in the site in the early 1990s, there was a green sign denoting it, but upon my visit it too was lost in the hedge. He described it as:
“a stone trough at ground level, 4ft 6in by 2ft, which is divided in a curious manner into two unequal parts… There is a high stone wall behind the trough. Until about two years ago there was an iron plate, bearing the inscription “St Anne’s Well”… Water from the well… was well-known throughout the parish of Pucklechurch for its excellent properties as an eye lotion.”
Being divided into an unusual manner Skyring Walters believed that the smallest part for a puppy the larger for a mature dog?! Presently it contains very murky water and is perhaps in need of some restoration and protection. The last time it was restored properly may have been recorded by Dorothy Vintner in her 1966, ‘Holy wells near Bristol’, Gloucestershire Countryside June 1966, when they were told that:
“local inhabitants welcome the fact that its stonework is being restored and its water-supply improved.”
Its supply arises at the Lower Lias and Rhaetic limestone lying on Keyper Marl. A. Braine in their 1891 The History of Kingswood Forest calls it a chalybeate spring and states that:
“Here a large number of poor persons who have weak eyes resort to try its healing effects.”
This reference to healing eyes and it is recorded that people travelled for miles to try the cure, being still being publicised into the 1930’s. Interestingly Phil Quinn Quinn in the excellent 1999 The Holy Wells of Bath and Bristol Region, says that:
“women would come to the well with pins to drop in, in the hope of bearing a child.”
However after reviewing Vintner’s 1966 article that author refers to this tradition in Brittany not Siston! (sadly). Unfortunately, this belief has now slipped into other accounts of the well including the excellent website btsarnia.org//the-holy-wells-of-gloucestershire which records:
“In its heyday it drew people from Bristol especially the poor and those with weak eyes or those who were infertile. Pins were dropped into the well by women, hoping to become pregnant at the next intercourse. The efficacy of the waters as an eye cure was locally publicised as late as the 1930s. Similar wells with this custom and intention existed at Wrington, East Harptree and Portishead.”
Quinn (1999) is correct of course in his observation that it is:
“now sadly holds little more than rainwater.”
Stating that it was affected by road widening another impact on this noted holy well and slowly vegetation, litter and neglect may one day claim it.
If there was a claim for the Scottish holy well visited by the most famous people it must be the suitably named Scotlandwell. It would add that it is also one of the most picturesque holy wells in Britain and very easy to find – being signposted down a lane with parking off the village that shares its name.
A Roman site
It is said that in the late 1st century A.D the Romans named the well Fons Scotiae’ . Whilts it is known in 84 AD, Roman soldiers were marching between their camps at Lochore in Fife and Ardoch in Perthshire however, there does not appear to be any evidence especially archaeologically, but what is known that a hospital dedicated to St Mary was established in the area in 1250 by the Trinitarian Friars. It is locally said that they utilised the water. Their association may have attracted one of the most famous of Scotland’s kings – Robert the Bruce. It is alleged that he came here to be cured of leprosy. Janet and Colin Bord in their 1985 Sacred Waters note:
“Robert Bruce, King of Scotland (1306-29) suffered from leprosy, and at least three wells were reputedly used by him in his search for a cure. He is said to have been responsible for a well at Prestwick (Ayr) which flowed where he stuck his spear in the sand while resting from his struggles with the English. He stayed for several days, and his leprosy was reputedly cured. He is said to have built a leper hospital for those who could not afford treatment. He also visited the St Lazarus Well at Muswell Hill (London) being granted a free pass by the King of England to do so.”
It is thus said to have become a place of pilgrimage. Another monarch, Mary Queen of Scots also is said to have visited it. However, the Friar’s establishment remembered as Friar Place was demolished in 1587 probably not long after Mary’s patronage at the start of the great Reformation in Scotland.
However, the well itself must have been accessible as Bill Anderton in his 1991 Ancient Britain tells us that:
“ records show that Charles II travelled from his Dunfermline Palace to take the waters.”
Whatever these records are, are in themselves unclear and whilst the ancient royal seat of Dunfermline is indeed not many miles from the site, I have been unable to find further details.
The site may have slowly disappeared into obscuring if it was not for the fortitude of local landowners. When in the early 1820s the site, itself common land, could be described as:
“an almost unapproachable slough of mire and filth” and within it “a half ruinous building used sometimes as a washing house and sometimes as a slaughter house.”
This may have been some remains of the Friar’s buildings perhaps and it is impossible that some older stone in the current fabric of the well house could be from this date. The building of the ornamental well and its nearby wash house was done by a Thomas Bruce of Arnot who owned land in the aras between 1857 and 1860 after acquiring the land. He employed David Bryce an important Edinburgh architect to draw up plans for both in 1857 which consisted of a large stone lined bath like chamber covered accessing all around by covered by grill. Over which is an ornate wooden roof, akin to a alpine chalet style. All painted dark green. Water bumbles up through sandy soil in the water quite obviously and then emerges from a small gap into a small circular basin and then run off. Steps go down from both sides to reach the outflow. Using stone available from quarries nearby that the well was completed soon after at the cost of £154 in 1858. On either side of the water spout are the initials TBA for Thomas Bruce of Arnot and his wife Henrietta Dorin embossed. The nearby washhouse also bears TBA and 1860.
Thomas Bruce of Arnot stated in his memoirs:
“The improvement of the village and of its “Well” has cost me more money than some might perhaps say I aught to have expended upon them, but it has been a subject of great interest to me and I have been far more than repaid in one way at least by the gratification it has afforded to the villagers by a desire for whose moral improvement it was that I was mainly actuated in what I did and am still doing.”
Then in 1922 two years after the death of Sir Charles Bruce of Arnot the well and wash house, were handed over to the people of Scotlandwell as a gift and the site is currently looked after by the Parish council.
The bath house locally called ‘The Steamie’ was where laundry was washed, being connected to the well’s underground water source, ceased being used in 1960s but has recently been restored as a small tourist attraction and currently leaflets are given out concerning the well and the bath house
In Ruth and Frank Morris’s 1978 Scottish Healing Well they note:
“In October 1978 we met there a women, her husband and brother who had travelled from Edinburgh a round trip of some 80 miles which they frequently made, to fill to two large bottles with clear well water. One of the men, a cancer sufferer had been induced to take the water some time before and found it did him some good , clearing a stubborn body rash that he continued to use the water: “If it was good enough for Robert the Bruce, it’s good enough for me. ”
However, reaching for the metal cup I took myself a large gulp not noticing that the sign that he had read when Ruth and Frank Morris had visited in 1978: ‘Health giving water of Scotlandwell was for many years used to help cure the sick…” was replaced with UNFIT TO DRINK DO NOT DRINK!
Oh well this was a few summers ago and I am still okay. Whether you drink or not, Scotlandwell is one of the country’s most attractive and perhaps oldest healing springs.
On and off I have been surveying the holy wells of East and West Sussex which is an area which does not appear to have collected much academic interest. Thanks to myself and James Rattue Kent is now covered more than satisfactorily, ditto Rattue’s Surrey and now Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex in a way await further exploration. Thus it is possible that new and interesting holy wells maybe found in these counties, ones missed by Jeremy Harte’s 2008 magnus opus English Holy wells
Battle is such a place. It is a place I have visited many times and thought there should be a holy well there and indeed there was. However, the Wishing, Holy or Dr Graye’s Well is described by one source Her Grace the Duchess of Cleveland’s account of the History of Battle Abbey as:
“a square opening five or six feet wide, enclosed by a massive stone wall nearly seven feet high; a flight of steps led up to it on either side, and at each angle was what he called a vase, or receptacle for flowers and votive offerings. The spring was conveyed to the other side of the church wall.”
It was located:
“On the north side of the Cloister Garth stood the Holy Well, from which some writers have derived the name of Senlac, given to this place by Ordericus Vitalis. It is mentioned in Queen Elizabeth’s time, as a place held sacred by recusants’ :-whither many, especially women, resort, like a young pilgrimage, and call it Dr. Graye’s well.’
Did this have an older history? The author suggests that its water gave Battle its old name of Senlac – possibly – but there is no evidence as such- and the origin of that name has itself been debated. What is more likely perhaps is that the spring provided the domestic water supply of the Abbey and later converted post Reformation as suggested above as a holy well needed to meet Catholic recusant use.
Who was Dr Graye?
The author continues to explain that Dr Grey was a priest, the Dowager Viscountess Montague’s chaplain, a zealous Roman Catholic, who resided at the Abbey in Elizabethan times. He was imprisoned by Sir Francis Walsingham. He appears a likely person to concoct a holy well out of an available spring.
What happened to the well?
The author continues to record that:
“ It was afterwards known as the Wishing Well, and was unfortunately destroyed in the course of Sir Godfrey Webster’s alterations, in 1814….and now furnishes the drinking water of the household; it is remarkably sweet and pure, and we appreciated it for its own sake long before we were made aware that it was the charmed water of the old Holy Well.”
And so it disappeared into obscurity after perhaps a brief period of fame – a holy well of the Catholic faith in hiding and as such of great interest.
The real sacred well of Battle?
However, another claimant to have an association with the Battle of Senlac is still to be found. King Harold’s Well is enclosed in a circular well can be found in the front garden of Three Virgins Lane.
Local tradition records that the spring was drunk by King Harold before the Battle of Hastings. Whether it is originally a Saxon well is unknown it certainly does not look it. It is perhaps not the most attractive site but at least something remains to remind us of the days of King Harold.
In a quiet corner of Kent is one of the county’s most renowned wells. A well known local legend is associated with St. Eustace’s Well (TR 062 458) Hasted (1797 -1801) based his knowledge on the work of Roger of Wendover describes the well as follows:
“In it (Wye) is a hamlet, called Withersden, formerly accounted a manor, in which there is a well, which was once famous being called St. Eustace’s Well, taking its name from Eustachus, Abbot of Flei,…..a man of learning and sanctity…to come and preached at Wye, and blessed a fountain there, so that afterwards its waters were endowed by such miraculous power, that by all diseases were cured.”
Hasted (1797-1811) relates the properties of the well in detail:
“..from the taste of it alone, the blind recovered sight, the lame their power of walking, the dumb their speech, the deaf their hearing, and whatever sick person drank of it in faith enjoyed renewed health.”
The legend set in 1189, during Godfrey de Luce’s tenure at the vicarage. Pope Innocent III sent St. Eustace, a Norman Cistercian Abbot, who held his first meeting at Wye after a terrible sea journey. Thirsty, he searched for water, and finding this spring, blessed it, afterwards it attracted pilgrims, and a guardian priest was established. A specific legend tells of a woman, possessed of the devil, and ‘swollen up as it were by dropsy’ came to a priest, whom upon seeing her urged her to go the spring. This she did and no sooner had the women drunk the holy water, she recovered but vomited forth a pair of black toads, growing into black dogs, then black asses! The woman surprised vented her anger against these manifestations and the priest intervened, sprinkling the holy water on ‘they flew up into the air and vanished, leaving no traces of their foulness.’
When I first became interested in holy wells – some would say obsessed – my interest being piqued by a copy of Janet and Colin Bord’s 1984 Sacred Waters picked up in a Truro bookshop back in the 1990s and in it was St Eustace’s Well. It was described as follows:
“The well is close to Withersdane cottage 3/4 mile southeast of Wye and reached along a lane by Withersdane hall. the well now has an air of neglect but in medieval times it was famous because it was visited by St Eustace when visiting the country. People visited for eye cures.”
As the well was place with the Saint Edith and The Black Prince’s Wells, both exceptional sites, I expected something on an ilk. With the book in hand and armed with a map I looked for the site, and looked and looked. I was expecting to find something beside the road at the corner where the map albeit a less than accurate landranger placed it. To no avail I could not find it. So finally I decided to ask a person in a nearby cottage thinking that perhaps the site was lost in the undergrowth or else unfortunately filled in. Especially as Robert Goodsall in his 1968 A second Kentish patchwork first visiting the site in 1966, found the site overgrown with saplings and weeds, but recently the site has been tidied up. There was report of steps and rails from the roadside down to the spring head with a stone nearby near the pond for leaving water vessels.
Upon asking I thus discovered that the person I was asking had it in the corner of their garden. The owner, a Mr. John Hilton and he gladly showed me the well. It consists of a shallow rectangular shaped pond, with its source enclosed within a square brick structure with a concrete top, to the north of the actual well basin. I was informed by the then owner Mr. Hilton that even in the 1976 drought, there was no apparent difference in depth, the only considerable change being the influx of agricultural fertiliser causing overgrowth in algae over the years.
Within recent years it has been reported that St. Eustace’s Well had become very yet overgrown again. Perhaps due to a change of ownership it has again been cleared of bushes and this time it was noted that the water table had fallen due to water abstraction for mains supply nearby and thus turned the well more into a murky pool. However, I noticed that in a recent photo from Will Parson of the Pilgrimage Trust that it looks much more inviting with the steps down to it having been tidied up and the water looking clear and clean. It is clear from the planting that this back garden holy well is much appreciated.
Sitting rather incongruously beside a main road is the Beggar’s Well. A site which is often without explanation included in works on holy wells however there is no folklore or history recorded of the site. Described Patchell and Patchell (1987) Old Wells of Warwickshire describe it as like a dog kennel. Indeed this structure is very confusing. When Lichfield road was widened the well was rebuilt sometime 13 metres to the west of its original location between 1962 and 1983 it appears and surprisingly no one remembers exactly when or by whom. Even more confusing is that a surviving photograph held in Warwickshire Record Office showing woman standing by Beggar’s Well which is dated between 1900-1909 it appears completely different in shape, size and appearance. When I visited it was evident to me that the brickwork did not match that seen in the photo. Thus it asks the question why were new bricks used, what happened to the original brickwork or is this the original brickwork which could be found behind encasing possibly seen in the photo. It is possible that the brickwork is that seen below the conical shape but one might ask why not completely rebuild and what happened to the conical top. It is all very odd. Furthermore the site is now completely dry no one thought it appears to direct the spring (assuming it was still flowing when moved). All in all it looks like an amateur job but someone must know for sure.
Is it a holy well?
Some sources emphatically include it in surveys of obvious holy and healing wells. But there is no evidence of this. Nor is there evidence of any age either. It’s earliest reference is on the first series OS map it appears. Yet could it be a holy well? Is there more to its history? Let us examine the evidence.
Is it really St Peter’s Well? St Peter’s Well ‘appears in many old documents’. The parish church is dedicated to Sts. Peter & Paul, but the wells exact location is unclear unless it refers to the Beggar’s Well? The evidence against this, but not exclusively problematic, is that many wells which share the same name as their parish church are located near the parish church – the Beggar’s well is not. Furthermore one could suggest that St Peter as a dedication suggests that as a holy well it may have derived its name from the church and thus emphasising its proximity.
Is there any other evidence? Well no but perhaps it is worth exploring the name Beggar’s Well. No authority appears to give reason for its origin. The obvious answer is that this was a site frequented by beggars which provided free water. There are other Beggars wells in the country, perhaps the most similar and indeed it even looks like Coleshill’s Beggar’s Well, is that of Threapwood, Staffordshire. Here its is said that workers at the now disused sandstone quarry discovered this source of water in the 1840s. Landowner Earl of Shrewsbury allowed locals to use it. Although that does not really explain the name!
There is another possible if rather hypothetical origin to the name. Is it derived from St. Bega? It seems unlikely St Bega as a saint is restricted to the north west of England it appears and I know of no evidence of her cult in this area of the country. However what is more interesting is that she was a Celtic saint and there is evidence of Celtic remains here.
Is the Romano-British settlement a clue?
In 1978, local enthusiasts discovered Roman pottery and more significantly it is I discovered this unattributed record:
“workmen removing the original stone lining in preparation for sinking a new well to one side of the dual carriageway found a crock pot buried behind one of the sandstone blocks, breaking it open they found it was full of Roman and Romano-Celtic coins – not one of which had been minted after 63ad.”
This report is of the Beggar’s well and indicates the ancient use of the well and the deposit of coins an offering. The date link suggesting perhaps to prevent the impact of Bouddican raids. This finally suggests that if the well in the article in question is the Beggar’s well we can state fairly emphatically that it was a sacred spring.
Was the well linked to a Roman settlement with a Roman temple found on Grimstock Hill. This was occupied from the 1st to 3rd century and the discovery of silver plaque showing a figure holding a shield suggests it was dedicated to Mars or Mercury. Unfortunately, such a deity is not a strong indication of a local water cult. What was worked out was that the square shrine was built on top of earlier ovens where food may have been offered to the gods.
An important Celtic religious site would be likely in Coleshill as it was the meeting point of three Celtic tribes: the Cornovii, the Dobunni and the Coritani. Of course the observant amongst you will see the name of the hill is significant – Grimstock – is this our final clue albeit a Germanic one? It is highly suggestive that Grim derives from Grimr, a version of Odin the Norse chief god and stock derived from Old English ‘stoc has been suggested as meaning ‘place’ quite often for a holy place. Was this a name given by Germanic settlers seeing the temple remains one wonder or did they celebrate their god here and utilise the spring? Interesting here might be another clue to the age of the well and its name. Böðgæðir is another name for the god, as is Báleygr, and whilst there is no evidence of either being used locally or indeed how they are pronounced, consenental drift over the years may have made it sound like beggar and the ill informed made it so.
Is the Hawkswell evidence?
Also in the parish is a Hawkeswell. Now I have mooted a theory that such named wells are vestiges of ancient motif wells which were named after the motif animal of different tribal groups that met there perhaps.
There is a record of a Cold Bath in the parish which was said to cure leprosy. Where this was I have been unable to ascertain but it may have been possibly associated with the spring. Its association with leprosy is significant often leprous beggars were an issue for many medieval towns and villages was this a way to prevent lepers reading the centre. It was after all on the edge of the settlement.
So in summary I would say there is not much evidence for Beggar’s well to be a holy well in the Christian sense but there is some circumstantial evidence that it is sacred spring in the Roman British time and possibly into Anglo-Saxon times. It does feel that the Beggar’s well holds more secrets and perhaps one day these will be revealed. So for now Beggar’s well is not a holy well.
One of the most evocative holy wells is perhaps one of the most unique fittingly. The first to record it was William Hals in his 1685-1736 History of Cornwall. He records that:
“In this parish is that famous and well-known spring of water called Holy-well (so named the inhabitants say, for that the virtues of this water was first discovered on Allhallows- day).”
So far not perhaps that unusual. But he continues:
“The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea- cliff’ rocks, beneath full sea-mark on spring-tides ; from the top of which cavern foils down or distils continually drops of water, from the white, blue, red, and green veins of those rocks. And accordingly, in the place where those drops of water fall, it swells to a lump of considerable bigness, and there petrifies to the hardness of ice, glass, or freestone, of the several colours aforesaid, according to the nature of those veins in the rock from whence it proceeds, and is of a hard brittle nature, apt to break like glass.”
Over a hundred years later, John Cardell Oliver’s 1877 Guide to Newquay romantically records:
“It is a somewhat curious place. After passing over a few boulders the mouth of the cave will be reached, where steps will be found leading up to the well. This rock-formed cistern is of a duplicate form, consisting of two wells, having a communication existing between them. The supply of water is from above; and this water, being of a calcareous nature, has coated the rock with its earthy deposits, giving to the surrounding walls and to the well itself a variegated appearance of white, green and purple. Above and beyond the well will be seen a deep hole extending into the cliff.”
Thomas Quiller-Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall
“This well has Nature only for its architect, no mark of man’s hand being seen in its construction ; a pink enamelled basin, filled by drippings from the stalactitic roof, forms a picture of which it is difficult to describe the loveliness. What wonder, then, that the simple folk around should endow it with mystic virtues?”
Cures for children
Richard Polwhele, in his 1803 History of Cornwall states
“The virtues of the waters are, if taken inward, a notable vomit, or as a purgent. If applied outward, it presently strikes in, or dries up, all itch, scurf, dandriff, and such-like distempers in men or women. Numbers of persons in summer season frequent this place and waters from countries far distant. It is a petrifying well.”
Further details are given by John Cardell Oliver
“The legend respecting the well is, that in olden times mothers on Ascension Day brought their deformed or sickly children here, and dipped them in, at the same time passing them through the aperture connecting the two cisterns ; and thus, it is said, they became healed of their disease or deformity. It would seem that other classes also believed virtue to reside in its water; for it is said that the cripples were accustomed to leave their crutches in the hole at the head of the well.”
“The virtues of this water are very great. It is incredible what numbers in summer season frequent this place and waters from counties far distant.”
Why is it St Cuthbert’s Well?
One account tells how Alchun, Bishop of Holy Island, Lindisfarne in 995 AD to take the body of previous bishop, St Cuthbert, to Ireland to escape Danish raiders. However, it is said that the weather drove them to the north coast of Cornwall where they were beached and settled at time and built a church at Cubert. They presumably rested at the cave and the relics touched the spring which then became holy and healing. After settling down in Cornwall, the Bishop and the relics finally set off to Durham where the saint was finally laid to rest.
This seems a fairly unlikely journey and a story made up by the ill-informed it would seem as the parish is named after St Cubert, an 8th century companion of St Carantoc, who came to convert the local pagans. What is interesting is that there are two holy wells in the parish. A more traditional chapel type being found on higher ground and I would hypothesis that this was constructed to sway local people from visiting the more primeval sea cave. Perhaps as that did not work local Christians applied the St Cuthbert story to the sea cave to attempt to finally push out the pagan connotations – the saintly name however still jars in this most primitive and ancient site.
Interestingly despite it being a wholly natural site it became a Scheduled Monument by Historic England in 2001