A fragment of cream coloured cloth is a curious exhibit piece at Oxford Universities’ Pitt Rivers museum. It states:
“Votive rags from St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch near Boston Spa, West Yorkshire 1884.140.331 is an example of the votive rags that were tied to a tree near a well.”
Interestingly it also notes:
“Oddly this item was not accessioned into the Pitt Rivers Museum collections until the 1990s though it had lain in the museum for over a hundred years by then.”
This rag is perhaps unique being the only museum example of a rag taken from a rag well (considering the folklore associated with such sites I would be interested what happened to the collector). It is fitting to have this record of one of the countries most famed rag wells. For outside the famed Clootie Well and Madron Well, St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch is perhaps the most famed rag well; one which today only a memory survives perhaps –and this acquisition is interestingly the earliest reference to the site. The earliest published reference is in A Thousand miles in Wharfedale by Edmund Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm.”
A gewgaw would appear to refer to rags as the dictionary definition being a showy thing, especially one that is useless or worthless. A term which has largely fallen out of usage since the Victorian times.
Our next reference is Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells. He explicitly now refers to rags, as he notes that:
“It was usual for those who consulted the oracle at this well to make an offering there of a scrap of cloth. This was fastened to an adjoining thorn, which, being literally covered with pieces of, rag, presented a peculiar appearance.”
Harry Speight (1902) Lower Wharfedale visited St. Helen’s Well he notes in reference to a cross:
“This interesting relic of the ancient faith was discovered here, hidden among brushwood near the celebrated spring which bears St. Helen’s name. Whitaker thinks that the distinguished lady had crossed the ford of Wharfe, and that in all probability she had drank at this well, which for centuries afterwards became a very popular resort of religious votaries, particularly from the vicinity of York. Subsequently a chapel was erected on the spot, which was standing in Leland’s time, but the Reformation did away with most of these wayside oratories, and not a stone now remains.
He description of the rag custom seems to suggest it was by his time in abeyance:
Such, however, was the fascination of this time-honoured spot, that down even to our own time pilgrimages continued to be made to the holy fountain, and bits of metal or pins were thrown into the water, or ribbons were attached to the adjoining bushes (as many as forty or fifty have been seen within living memory), in propitiation of the good cause of St. Helen and Christianity. The water is beautifully soft and clear, and in former times was much resorted to as a specific for sore or weak eyes.”
By the time that C.N. Bromehead wrote an article entitled ‘Rag Wells,’ in Antiquity IX, March 1935 he visited the well he recorded that:
“There is now no well or visible spring, but from the position at the lower margin of a gravel terrace it is obvious that water would be obtained by digging a few feet; a small stream flows just east of the site.”
Yet despite its lost he noted that:
“It is curious that the hanging of rags should survive when the actual well has vanished, but the writer has visited the spot many times in the last seven years and there are always plenty of obviously recent additions. The custom is to stand facing the well (i.e., due west), preferably after sunset, wish, and then attach something torn from one’s clothing either to the big tree — wych elm — or to any of the bushes.”
Like a precursor of the lovelocks folk craze now current everywhere the author then continues to observe:
“Probably the custom is largely maintained by vagrants who frequently camp in the wood, but it also has its attraction for courting couples from the neighbouring villages!”
Certainly the final nail in the coffin was in 1940 when a munitions factory called ROF Thorp Arch was opened following compulsory purchase of the land. This made St Helen’s Lane and the Rag Well out of bounds until 1958 when the site was closed. According to Pastscape historical record that in 1958 it recorded:
“St. Helen’s Well (a Votive or Rag Well) still used as such. The Well, now dry and overgrown, has no associated masonry, and appears to have been a simple spring.”
This appears to be to the contra of the fact the munitions factory had emasculated the custom. Yet it was doubtless on the way out for by 1963, this entry had been updated to read:
“There are no visible remains of the chapel, but the contour of the ground in the vicinity of the well, suggests a natural hillock at SE 45134583 as the probable site.
However even in the 2000s ribbons could still be seen in the vicinity but whether these were placed by locals seeking a cure or local pagans keen to continue the tradition is unclear but it is interestingly that one of the most famous English rag wells lives on. I only wish that those who had attached the current rags were aware of the that original in Oxford and ensured that their examples were cotton based!
Bedfordshire is a bit of forgotten county when it comes to research into holy wells but a digging into a range of resources coupled with field work indicates that the county does have a number of interesting sites. St Chad’s Well at Pertenhall is one such site. I was first made aware of the site reading Haunted Britain by Anthony Hippisley Coxe being one of only two holy wells he mentions in the county. It is also worth noting that despite an inclusion in Charles Hope’s 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells it has been largely forgotten. The author records:
“The other day, in passing through Pertenhall, I noticed the Chadwell Spring, at Chadwell End, to be a big one. At one time it was proposed to have a drain to carry the water to Kimbolton, a distance of seven miles. Within the last few years much water from this spring has been bottled, and used for sore eyes. The parish church is dedicated to St. Peter, and formerly Pertenhall was Saint Peter’s Hall, and there were seven churches altogether in the parish once on a time, so my informant, an old inhabitant I chanced upon, asserted.–A. C. G. Cameron, H.M. Geological Survey. March 14, 1891.”
When J. Steele Elliott compiled Bygone water supplies in 1933 he wrote:
“The water was referred to in 1806 for its ferruginous valves…Yields a considerable flow..”
By the time that Hippisley Coxe in his 1973’s Haunted Britain arrived he recorded another name:
“At Chadwell End, the southern part of the village, is Holy Spring (originally St Chad’s Well)
“where only eighty years ago water was bottled and used for sore eyes. The spring lies off Chadwell Farm, 200 yards to the west, through the farmyard, over a wooden bridge Miss Banks, the farmers’ daughter may not only give you permission to visit it, but also show the way. No building remains.”
The Bedfordshire County Council stated that:
“It is well documented that during the last century it was thought that the water in this well had curative properties, especially for eyesight problems, and people came from miles around hoping to cure their ailments.”
It is St Chad’s Well or Chadwell?
There is a distinction. There are a large number of wells named Chadwell particularly in the eastern part of the country.
Like quite a number of so called Chad Wells it is more likely to be derived from the Old English ceald meaning ‘cold’ and indeed it was called Chawdwell in 1607 according to Allen Mawer and F. M. Stenton’s 1926 The Place-Names of Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire. On this basis it appears not and indeed Steele Elliott notes that the name Cadwell is recorded in 1712-14.
Bedfordshire was part of Mercia where Chad lived but there is no evidence his visited this area of Bedfordshire. Furthermore, although the manor once belonged to the Knights Templar there is no evidence that the group either utilised the well or named it. However, Elliott does that there is a record of a Nun’s Well in the same parish but he does not give a location so perhaps this site and the Nun’s well are the same? Is Anthony D Hippisley Coxe naming of the site Holy Spring a clue?
The site today
A glance of the current O/S map shows in blue writing Chadwell spring in an indistinct location at the confluence of footpaths. Elliott shows a photo (see below) of the site which appears to show a spring flowing at some speed into a circular possibly stone lined basin.
Before decide to explore its current state my attention was drawn to the Bedfordshire County Council (2002) notes that:
“The well is still there today but in a poor state of repair, although the Parish Council are hoping to undertake restoration work in the near future.”
Bedfordshire 2002 – Issue 19, June 2002
Therefore I was expecting to see some sort of structure in line with Elliot perhaps. However the site is difficult to line up with his photo. It is possible that the site has been tanked although one can hear the sound of water flowing into a small pool of clear water but one could note easily reach this area. Not exactly derelict and just about observable from the footpath although the spring itself probably lies off of it. Clearly a spring of considerable importance but whether St Chad was there it seems very unlikely!
Suffolk strangely is not over endowed with holy, healing and noted wells and one is indebted to the pioneering work of Michael Burgess in his nigh impossible to obtain 1978 Holy Wells and Ancient Crosses of Norfolk and Suffolk a East Suffolk & Norfolk Antiquarians Occasional Paper 2. So when one is noted it is of considerable interest despite its provenance. The Holy Well at Kedington is mentioned in Burgess’s work.
The village of Kedington near Haverill has such a site simply called the Holy Well. The village is itself a delightful place full of interest namely its church where a rare circular Saxon cross head with an image of Jesus is located.
Burgess (1978) informs us that in the rectory gardens, also called Ketton House and states:
“In the grounds of Kedington rectory is a ‘holy well’ with supposed healing powers. At one time it was actually by the roadside but the road has since been diverted. Covered by a rounded brick hood, the we us about 41/2 feet deep, and has never been known to fail.”
The site has been on my to do list for some while and then last year around Easter time I happened to be in the area and able to visit the site. The gardens are regularly open for the Garden Open Scheme so I felt the owner would be possible amenable to my search. The gates were open and I walked over to the large house walked on the steps and rang the bell. A call came out and the owner appeared. I explained my search and he said I’ll get my wellingtons on and show you. Its current owner Mr Max Dyre-Bartlett was happy to show me and as can be seen it is an unusual well situated below the house but a fair way I would say from the road to suggest this part of the account may be erroneous and perhaps recants a movement of the spring into this well head? Similarly, despite the claim it never failed, he remarked that in the 20 years of living on the property it had never flowed. He also repaired and cleared the well which has an unusual brick built spiral stepped walkway to the well. The well has either lost its hood or else the small curved brickwork is what remains of it or is the hood. Mr Max Dyre-Bartlett could not remember if it had more brickwork but on inspection it seems unlikely. This brickwork looks around Victorian in part and pre-Imperial in other suggesting an early 1700 origin. There is a hole below the level of the floor which is either where the water flows into the well head or out to prevent flooding.
A pilgrim route?
Apart from providing unfailing supply of water, another tradition states that pilgrims used it on their way to Bury stating:
“Tradition says it was used by pilgrims on their way to the shrine to St. Edmund at Bury.”
This could certainly be true as it is close by but perhaps more interestingly, it is also in a straight line passing not far from the holy wells of St Wendreda near Newmarket and Holy Well Row near Mildenhall to the greater shrine of Walsingham.
Holy Well or not?
The site does not appear to be well known. It is not mentioned in a review of the garden in Garden open scheme, the church warden was unaware of it and indeed the current owner, Mr Max Dyre-Bartlett was unaware that it was a holy well. However, he was certainly interested in it being one and me bonded over both sharing a holy well on our property mine being under the house of course! So is it one? It certainly is unusual, indeed I have never seen one with such an unusual path way. However, perhaps as Burgess is the only source should be cautious? The site is also not mentioned in Harte (2008) English Holy Wells. Its location in a rectory garden is significant but how much we can use this as a solution is unclear. This notwithstanding if you are in the area when the gardens are open it is worth examining.
Despite the thundering sounds of motorways nearby, the industry of Aylesford and the urban sprawl of Maidstone and Rochester not far away the triangle of area trapped between this modernisation clinging to the edges of the ancient pilgrim’s way still has a feel of something ancient and mysterious. Many people visit the area to see its megalithic remains – Kit’s Coty, lower Kit’s Coty and the White horse stone, but in this area are a number of springs which tantalisingly may suggest a similar ancient ritual use.
Many years ago I picked up a delightfully named volume A Tramp in Kentish Pilgrim Land by Coles Finch. A 1925 book whose research and details are of much interest. One of the sites he discusses is the Pilgrim’s Spring, (TQ 731 614) in the old community of Tottington, which he describes a pool surrounded by sarsens believed to be of ancient origin:
“Spread around this beautiful spring head in plenteous disorder is a large number of huge stones, some thrown into the bed of the stream, others supporting its margins. Some half buried and peep through the ground. With Cromlech and altar thrown down and heaped around the spring, it is left to our imagination to picture this site of ancient water worship in the dim and distant past. The stone circle appears to have completely encircled the principal spring; hence there are reasonable grounds for concluding that too was devoted to water worship.”
Earlier in 1872 a James Fergusson visited the area and noted:
…nearer the village [Aylesford] exists or existed, a line of great stones, extending from a place called Spring Farm, in a north-easterly direction, for a distance of three quarters of a mile, to another spot known as Hale Farm passing through Tollington [sic], where the greater number of the stones are now found. In front of the line near the centre at Tollington lie two obelisks, known to the country people as the coffin stones – probably from their shape. They are 12 feet long by 4 to 6 broad, and about 2 to 3 feet thick. They appear to be partially hewn, or at least shaped, so as to resemble one another.
Of course, the description is perhaps tainted by the ‘Druid’ obsession of Victorian antiquarians, so perhaps the stones are natural, although close to recognised ancient monuments, they are still to be found in area some up righted by the farmer The springs still exist too, but the number of sarsens associated with them appears to have been reduced, and one would suggest that a number have been dragged from their position and placed on the Coffin Stone.
Another similar site is a Spring (TQ 745 599) which is also situated by the Pilgrims way, and was probably associated with the nearby lost chapel of St. Michael, Alfred John Dunkin in his 1846 History of the County of Kent describes it as a Druidical pool:
“East of the Medway at Cossington, at the base of the hill on which Kits Coty House stands, water of the spring is intensely cold in summer and very warm in the winter.” He records that stones and similar objects placed in the water become coated in a red tinge, which undoubtedly created deep superstition regarding their powers.”
He also notes that around the spring head:
“still lie many of the massive boulders of their temple in a well preserved semicircular form.”
Dr. Thorpe’s work of 1788 cited in Hasted (1797-1811) History of Kent describes Cossington’s spring as:
“At the bottom issue several springs, which are so cold and sharp that the water is said to cramp and kill ducks, and the flints that lie in it are tinged red as blood, and to try the experiment stones have been marked and put in, which, in less than a year’s time, were of the same colour.”
Finch (1925) believes that these properties were exaggerated, and were certainly not considered when the water company took charge of the water; he describes the stream as now only flowing at a meagre flow and only feeding some pools by the ruins of Cossington Manor. Sadly, the site was been taken over by the waterworks and consequently at the spring head there is nothing of interest. Near Cossington farm, there are the ruins of the ancient manor and beneath this a rag stone pool, built to grow watercress. Yet, these are the only artefacts of interest, as the spring head itself is of no longer interest.
Below Boxley’s All Saint’s Church, Finch (1925) recorded a Pilgrim’s Pool (TQ 775 589) where the pilgrims would have presumably refreshed themselves or bathed. This pool has become over grown and rubbish strewn, compared to Finch’s (1925) time. The railings that lined the pool as shown in Finch’s photo are now bent, buckled and rusty. Overall, the pool is largely forgotten, and not even mentioned by the church guide. Hasted (1797-1811) notes two Petrifying Springs in the vicinity, and these are presumably the ones which arise inaccessibly in a small copse near the ruins of Boxley Abbey and the old vicarage garden (TQ 766 591, and TQ 774 589).
All of these sites potentially suggest the location of the Haly Well of Haley Garden. This has caused a fair amount of confusion from Kent historians being some discussion has occurred regarding its exact location, although Hale Farm may have taken its name from it. Harris (1719) in his work on Kent Topography notes that a well, that had many virtues, in particular cleansing sin:
“Under Boreham (Burham, Burgham) formerly there was a fountain in this Parish (South Philipot) at a place called Haly or Holy Garden, which was accounted mighty sacred by common people, and had very uncommon virtues ascribed to it, and in the 17th year of King Richard II, The Friars Carmelites of Aylesford obtained a grant by letters Pateill to bring the water from to their monastery.”
The nearby Friars at Aylesford are also said to have built an aqueduct from the site. Finch (1925) believes that the well lay eleven hundred yards due west of the Kewland Wheel Well house. Although, he also states that other authorities believed that this wheel well itself was the site. This belief was discredited, however, when its well shaft was explored: no chambers or tunnels were found to lead off of from it. Sadly, there is no evidence of Great Kewland house, although some house debris down a nearby wooded quarry can be located, although being tightly fenced in, one is unable to find any remains of a well or local knowledge.
Another possible site is a Roman or Ancient Draw Well, (TQ 741 809) According to Finch (1925), there is a legend connecting the well with another that of Kewland by a secret tunnel. Finch (1925) notes that there is:
“…an elm tree and some stones of various sizes, beneath which is a well only some two feet in diameter, but tested to be 113 feet deep. This doubtlessly was sunk for a water supply for the Roman occupants hereabouts.”
Finch (1925) expected that this well was a local myth but was fortunate to find a sixty year old man, who as a boy, used to drop flints down it. He notes that:
“The elm tree is bowed over with age and its sinuous roots have all but closed the entrance to the well, leaving but a tiny aperture through which one could see the rough coping stones. With a little dexterity, one could drop a stone, time its fall, and hear the thus as it fell upon the accumulated debris on the bottom no casual visitor could find the well, even though accurately marked upon a plan, without a guide.”
Certainly, it is unmarked on the present maps, and attempting to uncover its location I was hindered by considerable ivy cover and rubbish. I did locate a large amount of brick and stone debris at one site and possibly remains of a dead elm, but conclusively. Its location and indeed the location and meaning of the springs remains a mystery. Much of my field and archival research was done in the 1990s and detailed in Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent but even with the power of the internet these sites have not revealed themselves.
This year we are focusing on the often controversial subject of rag or clootie wells. The topic has already been explored on this blog a while back but with new research it is worth exploring again. So this year either view detailed history/folklore discussion or photo archive we shall be exploring the topic again. To start rather than a detailed History/folklore blog post it would be good to look at the range of clooties or rags left at the country’s most famous example with my ideas of why and I hope it might encourage discussion.
Over Beltane 2017 I had the privilege to spend much of the day at this famed holy well. My aim was two fold:
a – to photo as many as possible of the clooties and other offerings at the well as a record
b – to hopefully encounter visitors attaching clooties
Below is a photo archive cataloguing some of the diverse form of offerings at the well. For the background to this site please see the earlier post. I shall give my recollections of b in a later post with another on the site’s history
I have tried to categorise each item and give some rationale…it’s a controversial subject and now the site has been cleared recently do doubtless many of these have gone, which is not necessarily a bad thing in many cases!
Underwear – were these spare or did they completely undress? Are they associated with problems with these parts of the body? There is the famous bra fence in Australia associated with cures of cancer is this the same or are they ex votos as thanks?
Shoes – Similarly for foot problems or thanks for travelling safely…some new shoes as well
Teddies and dolls – personal items of a sick child perhaps?
Flags! – Hope for Nationalism and a record for overseas visitors
Football scarfs – wishing the team good luck!
Tabards – asking for solving work problems or to give protection for workers!
Personal messages – hope, thanks and memories of friendship renewed
Bags – good luck for school
Plaster casts – speak for themselves
Odd eggs! – Cowabunga! Fertility perhaps or just an attempt at egg rolling!?
This one’s been here for a while!
And there are many many more…perhaps enough for another blog post at the end!
Christian reader view in me,
An emblem of true charity,
Who freely what I have bestow,
Though neither heard nor seen to flow,
And I have full return from heaven,
For every cup of water given.
Cuthbert Bridgewater on a plaque above the spring
Overlooked by Liverpool’s august Anglican Cathedral rising amongst the dead of its rock cut cemetery, the spring arising there could easily be confused as a holy well. But of course, the Cathedral is Victorian in date and the spring was only discovered when the quarry was being made!. This was 1773 and a local surgeon, James Worthington was quick to identify its possible benefits. In his paper about the site he said the water was good for
“loss of appetite, nervous disorders, Lowness of spirit, headache is proceeding from crudities of the stomach, Ricketts and weak eyes.”
Similarly, a Dr. Houston identified the site as important and gave it the name ‘Liverpool Spa’ stating that the water was cool and refreshing to taste but ‘warmed the stomach and gave a cordial and inebriating sensation’ In an article called Virtues of the Liverpool Spa he records that:
“This water then contains, without a doubt, iron dissolved, both by fixed air, and by vitriolic acid: in this latter circumstance having the advantage over Tunbridge, and most of our other chalybeates. This renders it not liable, like them, to deposit its metallic principle by keeping. Yet the mineral vitriol is so very much diluted and so minutely divided, as to render it at once extremely beneficial, perfectly innocent and accepted even to weak stomachs. There is also a small proportion of muriatic and earthly salt, mentioned above, but not in such proportion as to claim any share in the medicinal effects.”
The account states that:
“It is particularly adapted to promote appetite and digestion, and to strengthen the tone of the stomach, impaired by excess or other causes. It gradually strengthens the whole habit, and hence is excellent in that weakness, which remains after acute diseases, and for those who, without any apparent cause, lose their strength, fall away, and are generally said to be going into weakness. It is useful in the first stage, or beginning of consumptions, and may be used with advantage, even in the more advanced stages, if the matter spit up be good pus and there be no considerable degree of fever.
It is of great service in nervous diseases, and in such as arise from weakness of the system, and reciprocally serve to increase it as in the beginning of a dropsy, in the Pluor albus or other feminal weaknesses, Diarrhoea and Diabetes. It is good to prevent the gout in the stomach and bowels, may be useful in rheumatisms, and in some bodies may remove the cause of barrenness or imbecility. In general it will be serviceable in a relaxed state of the solids arising from luxury, or excess or inaction, or a sedentary life, or consequent on iome d sease: it will correct a bad habit of body, and promote good suppuration and granulation in ulcers; and its frequent use will render a person less liable to be affected by cold, damp or putrid air, epidemical or other causes of diseases. It will provide an efficacious medicine in all the cases which were mention’d under the article of iron.”
After a length discourse on who should not take it the account the author talks about the method of using the water
“The best time for drinking this water is when the stomach is empty, in a morning, or an hour or two before dinner. It is proper to begin with half a pint, or a pint, and gradually to increase the dose, so as to take in some cases four or five pints a day, or even to use it for common drink at meals. The use of it should be continued for a pretty long time to reap the benefit of it, and where the quantity drank has been gradually increased, as soon as the end proposed is obtained, it shou’d be gradually decreased though not perhaps entirely left off. The summer season is best for drinking it, although the chief reason for this is that the fittest for exercise and bathing which greatly promote the good effects of the water, especially in nervous cases: this is also one motive for advising its being drank at the spring rather than at home. Moderate exercise, regularity, temperance, a light simple diet, not flatulent, using but little animal food, malt liquor, tea or coffee and relaxation of the mind also contribute much to assist its operation; as does, in obstructions, the warm bath.”
Another local surgeon, a Dr. James Worthington, also attempted to promote the spring in a pamphlet called Experiments on the Spa at Mount Zion, Near Liverpool in it he said it was good for:
“Loss of appetite, nervous disorders, lowness of spirit, headache, crudities of the stomach, rickets and weak eyes.”
However, the spring was largely ignored possibly due to its location in the cemetery and indeed within twenty years of its discovery it was overgrown by bushes. In the 1800s it was restored and surrounded by railings and filled a large pool. Despite the lack of interest for its medicinal water it did have a rather unusual effect on the graveyards its nearby occupants. In 1894, the copse of Captain David Gwin who died in 1813 was found to be completely petrified and turned to stone due to mineral water from the spring entering the grave. Today the spring flows continuously its water largely ignored by passersby but certainly still visited as shown by the presence of the leaf inserted into its flow.
Islands are of course uninhabitable without a good water supply and this was emphasised on Vanuatu in its creation myth according to John Paton in his 1890s Thirty years among the South Seas cannibals records that springs figure in the folklore concerning the origin of the islands. It is said that local god Matshiktshiki fished the islands out of the sea:
“And they show the deep print of his foot on the coral rocks opposite each island, whereupon he stood as he strained and lifting them up above the waters. Then he three his great fishing line round Futuna, thirty six miles distant, to draw it close to Aniwa and make them one land; but as he pulled, the line broke and he fell where his mark may still be seen upon the rocks, so the Islands remain separated to this day. Matshiktshiki placed men and women on Aniwa. On the southern end of the island, there was a beautiful spring and a fresh-water river, with rich lands all around for plantations. But the people would not do what M wanted them so he got angry, and split the richer part of Aniwa, with the spring and river and sailed with hem across to Aneityum…To this day the river is called ‘the water of Aniwa’ by the inhabitants of both islands; and it is the ambition of all Aniwans to visit Aneityum and drink of that spring and river as they sign to each other: Alas for the waters of Aniwa
Being a geothermal area hot springs are found on the island One such is the hot spring at Efate called the Takara springs. These arise in channels which are stone lined with beautiful blue clear water with some algal growth filling a large communal pool. It is thought that the water mixes with salt water giving the waters an unusual property. However it is when the water flows into the mud pools that it is thought to be particularly efficacious. Here the watery mud is applied to the skin and then after being washed off it is thought that it has the powers to rejuvenate the skin. The locals believe it has considering healing. However, these healing springs have a dark past too. John Paton in his 1890s Thirty years among the South Seas cannibals records:
“We retired to a Native house that had been temporarily granted to us for rest, and there pled before God for them all. The noise and the discharge of muskets gradually receded, as if the Inland people were retiring ; and towards evening the people around us returned to their villages. We were afterwards informed that five or six men had been shot dead ; that their bodies had been carried by the conquerors from the field of battle, and cooked and eaten that very night at a boiling spring near the head of the bay, less than a mile from the spot where my house was being built. We had also a more graphic illustration of the surroundings into which we had come, through Dr. Inglis s Aneityum boy, who accompanied us as cook. When our tea was wanted next morning, the boy could not be found. After a while of great anxiety on our part, he returned, saying, “Missi, this is a dark land. The people of this land do dark works. At the boiling spring they have cooked and feasted upon the slain. They have washed the blood into the water ; they have bathed there, polluting everything. I cannot get pure water to make your tea. What shall I do?”
One wonders if those wallowing in its healthy waters know they could have had another fate there?
One of the most fascinating lost Leicestershire holy wells was St. Mary’s Well or Everlasting well – although there is no clear evidence they are one and the same I should add but it is more than likely. Why is it more fascinating than most? It was because it was associated with David Papillon, said to be a local mystic.
Who was David Papillon?
David Papillon (1691-1762) was great-grandson of the builder of Papillon Hall, locally he was called Pamps and stories state he had psychic powers and that he had the power to bewitch people with his ‘evil eye’. One local tale tells how he criticised two farm labourers for ploughing a field poorly and so mesmerized them so they could not move all day and only released them at the end!.. As a result villagers made the sign of the cross in dough when baking bread to protect them. It is not clear how he used the well but it was probably thought he cast spells over it!
Holy well come evil well?
Pen Lloyd 1977, in their The History of the Mysterious Papillon Hall, Market Harborough, notes:
“A chalybeate spring in the grounds used to be known as St Mary’s Well”
The site of the Hall was thought to have been on the site of a Leper colony established by Leicester Abbey. Another name of this was the “Everlasting Well”, which was reported to be David Papillon’s magic well, which was supposed to possess great medicinal virtue. In my research for my Holy wells and Healing springs of Leicestershire volume I aimed to discover if the site survived and what remained of it.
History of the well
The first account is John Nichols (1795–1815) in his The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester:
“within a few yards of the Welland… in a stone cistern, formerly in some repute for weak eyes’
But he fails to suggest its name or refer to it in reference to David Papillon. Lloyd (1877) records an account by a Mr Walker, a previous owner of the Hall, who had a fragment of the well cover which still showed a P and one of the butterflies from the coat of arms. He gave it to Pelham Papillon who lived in Sussex in 1908 and the stone was supposed to have been built into a stone wall in the garden at Catsfield Place. Why it was given away is unclear and perhaps suggests at this time the well itself had become derelict and being removed. Whatever, it is also reported that he experienced some misfortune followed and he was forced to return it. However, where it is now is unclear.
What happened to the well?
In Old Pamp and the Slippers of Papillon Hall by David Allen or Lubenham.org.uk states:
“around 13 years ago (1988). It was at this point I decided to take a closer look…… I was surprised at what was still standing including……… the remains of St Mary’s well”
So it would appear it probably survived when Bob Trubshaw was recording it in his 1990 Holy wells of Leicestershire. No photo or drawing exists of the well that I can find but it must have been large enough to have a slab over it or on its enclosing wall.
Does the Everlasting Well last today?
Contacting a Mrs Barbara Burbidge, Secretary of the Lubenham Heritage Group I was informed that the well no longer existed. She also informed me of a local man called Bernard remembered when his parents and many others would get water because the mineral content was supposed to have therapeutic healing powers. Bernard’s mother used it to bathe her eyes. Even Jack Gardiner the famous boxer from Market Harborough is reported to have used it after his fights to help him recover.
She continued by informing me:
“Unfortunately I can verify that the well itself was removed several years ago and when I visited the site about five years ago doing research on Papillon Hall, all that remained was a slight staining in the ground and a few pieces of brick and rubble. I expect ploughing in the field in subsequent years has removed even those traces.”
According to Mrs Burbidge the well was situated about a mile to the west of Lubenham and south of what is now the A4304. The site can be found by following an avenue of trees from the road (opposite the entrance to Papillon Hall Farm and Branfield Residential Park) towards the River Welland. As you approach the river, turn left into an arable field and the well was in that corner of the field. Following those instructions I could not find any evidence and it looks like the Everlasting well lasts no more.
It’s great to record that this is the 300th post of this holy well blog and as this month is also its 8th Birthday I thought it would be worth making it clear why the posts are by Pixyled Publications or more precisely why Pixy led! What does this mean and why is it used? Well for this 300th blog post and on the blog’s 8th birthday I felt it was appropriate to describe the well where the term is most commonly associated with. This is Fitz’s Well laying in the desolate moors of Dartmoor at Princetown overlooking its foreboding prison. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells aptly explains:
“John Fitz, of Fitzford, near Tavistock, who was one day riding with his wife, lost his way on the moor. After wandering in vain to find the right path, being thirsty and fatigued, he at last found a delicious spring of water, whose powers seemed to be miraculous, for no sooner had he partaken thereof than he was enabled to trace his steps correctly homewards.”
Getting lost was often thought to be due to elemental spirits and Hope continues to note:
“John Fitz erected the memorial stone marked I. F., 1568, which, with a few other slabs of granite, protects it, for the advantage of all pixy-led travellers.”
Comically Sabine Baring Gould in his 1899 Book of Devon recorded that when he came to the well in the 19th century, some of his party including officers from the Ordnance Survey complete with their surveying equipment went astray in the mist and were completely lost. He noted:
“pixy-led out of pure mischief to show how superior the pixies were even to the most scientific equipment.”
However, you may still ask what does Pixy-led mean? British novelist Anna Eliza Bray first recorded the Pixy or Pixie in her 1837 The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy. It was recorded that Pixies would enjoy the prank of leading people astray and getting them lost. Thus the terms pixy led or rather amusingly for modern ears, pixilated, meant someone lost on a familiar route which lead to a state of confusion or bewilderment. If one thought they would be pixy led they would turn their coats inside out.
Hope goes on to describe the site as:
“about 3 feet deep, and lies in a swamp near the remains of an ancient bridge, or clam, the bridge being partly swept away by a flood in 1873”.
Sabine Baring-Gould notes:
“Fice’s Well, which I remember in the midst of moor, is now included within the new take of the prisons, and a wall has been erected to protect it. This deprives it of much of its charm.”
In 1826 an engraving by P. H. Rogers shows no sign of the enclosure wall. This must have been built by the prison’s intake post this date and before Baring Gould’s visit. The Field Investigators of State Environment in the 1954 note:
“A well constructed granite dipping chamber of drystone masonry. Internally it is 0.8m. square and 0.8m. high with a slab roof and a lintel over the open S side bearing the initials “IF” for John Fice and the date 1568. The well is enclosed by a circular protection wall, probably of much later date, and access is by steps over the wall which effectively precludes a photograph of the build.”
Confusingly, Okehampton and Tavistock also have Fitz’s well, although only the former could claim to have a position which might match the legend, but these are for another blog post perhaps. Finally, apart from removing the powers of the Pixy or as Sabine Gould calls it ‘Pixy glamour’ in an account obviously borrowed from Hope, it is also said to have:
“possess many healing virtues”.
No authority says what.
Today the well is a lot easier to find following the footpath from the road but I have only visited it on a warm and clear summer’s day. One could still imagine the Pixies would be about on a cold and misty November.
Spurting out sometimes 2 metres into the air, in the Semuliki National Park can be found the remarkable Sempaya Hot Springs. Boiling at up to 103 degrees Celsius; the indigenous Bamaga clan have a legend to explain it.
The male and female springs
The Bamaga clan, state that a hot spring arose after the tribe’s womenfolk saw a hairy man dressed in bark holding a spear with his dog moving in a zig zag fashion, whist collecting wood. Quickly returning to the men, the men then decided invite him to their village and find him a wife called Nyansimbi. However, the man who became known as Biteete disappeared once hunting and after searching they came to the hot spring where they found him and found no traces of both the man nor dog at the site, only their spear. They cried out Bilente meaning ‘Oh he has gone’ and thus the spring was so named. On returning to the village they told his wife and who also ran into the forest and was never seen again. When they looked for her they found at another hot spring her clothes. As a result they named the springs Male and Female, giving them the name Bilente and Nyansimbi respectively.
They believe the springs to be where their ancestors reside, Consequently, over the generations, the Bamaga tribe would perform rituals over the springs yearly, throwing in coins and making animal sacrifices. At Nyansimbi pregnant women would visit and pray for a safe pregnancy and delivery whilst other women visit to improve their fertility. Whilst others visit the waters believing the water, which are rich in salts, can cure skin problems. These extremely hot waters still continue to spurt out of the water producing a remarkable spectacle for all he see it.