The Old Wife’s Well has been on my to visit list for quite a time. The well is not the easiest to find situated on afforested woodland on the edge of moorland. High above Pickering, but only a few miles, it seems to be 100s of years away. A snapshot of an older tradition. The spring arises in a rather simple square well chamber which is fairly non-descript bar the engraving on the top which is most interesting. The carving reads:
This has been translated as ‘Well of the spirits’; Fonten – meaning spring and Nattie meaning spirit. Is this the Old Wife one wonders? Old Wife is found in a number of sites across Yorkshire: Old Wife’s Hill at Cundall, Old Wife’s Howe at Ravenscar, Old Wife’s Stones at Danby and Old Wife’s Neck which are standing stones on John Cross Rigg. Locally there is Wade’s causeway a long pavemented road which travels romantically across the desolate moorland. Wade was a local giant who is said to have built the causeway, which has been in the past said to be a Roman road, although opinion has changed over time. However, the wife in question is probably not a wife in the modern meaning but from the middle English word Wif which simply means ‘women’ which of course has survived in the term ‘midwife’ Thus the Old Wife simply means Old Women. Now this could refer to an old women who lived by the well, perhaps a local seer. Yet there is another explanation it could well remember the Cailleach, the old woman or hag, a deity of the Celtic population. Dr Anne Ross in her 1960 Pagan Celtic Britain described her as:
“At once mother, warrior, hag, virgin, conveyor of fertility, of strong sexual appetite which led to her seeking mates amongst mankind equally with the gods, giver of prosperity to the land, protectoress of the flocks and herds.”
Certainly the Old Wife’s Well is situated in an ancient landscape being close to a Mesolithic flint mine which was still active in the Bronze age and it is likely that the population used the spring. Of course one most sometimes be wary of wells with inscriptions suggesting ancient gods which may suggest classically aware landowners.
This notwithstanding, the site is powerfully evocative laying in an opening in the afforested woodland surrounded by low laying mist. It certainly is a much visited site by local people who connect with it spiritually and has within the last 30 years become a rag well.
The most common are traditional ribbons some of which are of cotton and should rot. They are attached to the trees and to the wooden enclosure of the well.
Some of the rags are clearly decaying and covered with algae and moss, suggesting they have been there for sometime.
There are also dream catchers
An evocative site hopefully it will not get too over-adorned with rags and objects and retains its mystery!
The Minster Wells: An Archaeological Evaluation of the Holy Wells of Minster Abbey, Isle of Sheppey, Kent – Brian Slade.
- The Abbess’s Well
The Abbess’s Well at Minster Abbey is so named because it supplied the water for St Sexburga’s palace. It is a timeless and sacred place, full of legend, symbolism and atmosphere. In 1991, I directed the award-winning excavations undertaken by the Sheppey Archaeological Society, of two wells associated with the former abbey. The Abbess’s Well produced proof positive of habitation on the site dating back to the very dawn of Britain’s history. The evidence includes pottery from the late Bronze Age (c. 1400-1000 B.C.) and Iron Age, to the Norman periods; with, in between, no less than ten varieties of Roman ware. Most remarkable of all, we uncovered more Anglo-Saxon imported Ipswich Ware (A.D. 650-850) than has been discovered in all the excavations at Kent’s cathedral city of Canterbury put together. Metal finds include seven Anglo-Saxon bronze dress pins, some with decorated heads, perhaps once worn by Sexburga’s nuns; and a delicate chain or chatelaine to which is attached a small pair of shears, equivalent in size to modern-day nail-scissors, which might have hung from some nun’s girdle. A cressett lamp-base (cressett, from the French, croix, a cross) from the 650 to 850 period was found, as were a silver sceatta coin, of a type issued for Egbert, archbishop of York, in currency between 732-4 and 766, and four Henry Ill silver coins (1216-1272).
Some of the most exciting finds were of glass. These include the broken remains of 7th-9th century natural green-blue Anglo-Saxon glass intentionally streaked with opaque red. Smooth free-blown glass and re-inflated high-relief ribbed glass blown in a mould is represented. Spanning the period from c. 500 A.D. to the 800s, some of the glass is from domestic jars and squat-jars. However, in the context of their being anciently broken around the holy well of St Sexburga’s convent, the most personal, poignant and mentally stimulating objects are the remains of glass beakers, pouch bottles, and dull natural green-blue ribbed palm cups. As the name implies, ‘palm cups’ do not have handles (nor, for the most part, do Anglo-Saxon beakers), their shape and size enabling them to be easily and comfortably cupped in the drinker’s palm. We may picture to ourselves Anglo-Saxon nuns, beakers and palm cups in their hands, sitting and standing around their abbess’s well on hot summer’s days, quietly sipping water freshly drawn from the well’s deliciously cool depths. Other nuns would be coming and going, filling glass pouch bottles either to keep about their person to drink from later as required, or to take to other nuns whose duties or state of health prevented them from coming to draw water for themselves. Inevitably, over the centuries every now and then one of the nuns would accidentally drop her beloved (and probably inherited) green-blue decoratively-ribbed glass palm cup, beaker or pouch bottle onto the ground around the well, where the delicate glass would break into many pieces which would gradually be trodden into the soft ground. And there they remained buried, hidden from sight for more than 1,000 years, until the Sheppey Archaeological Society came into being, dug them up, and had them examined, identified and dated by an expert at a museum.
The sheer density and richness of Anglo-Saxon finds unearthed in such a very small area around the Abbess’s Well reflect the wealth of royalty. The nunnery was founded more than 1,300 years ago by the widowed Anglo-Saxon queen Sexburga, to house her nuns of royal and high birth. An abrupt reduction in the pottery finds around the well from between c. 850 and 1,100 A.D. bears terrible witness to a period of diminished habitation, following documented Viking raids made on the Monasterium Sexburga, latter called Minster Abbey.
As an archaeologist and local historian well acquainted with Minster Abbey’s documented history, I had expected the Anglo-Saxon pottery evidence around the well to begin c. 660 A.D., when St Sexburga’s nunnery was founded. Instead, the team also unearthed Anglo-Saxon pottery from about 450 A.D., predating Monasterium Sexburga by some 200 years. This suggests that Sexburga introduced her nunnery into an existing and presumably pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon settlement. This provided the first evidence of such a scenario yet discovered. An English Heritage report based on their own inspection of the Abbess’s Well concluded that the stones forming the well- shaft are consistent with a 12th-century date. Yet, objects found down inside the Well date back to
3rd-century Roman occupation of the site. As there is no indigenous stone on the Isle of Sheppey, this suggests that c. 1130, when Archbishop William de Corbeuil shipped stone to Minster, he had the original wicker and timber-lined well-shaft replaced by the stone still to be seen in place there today.
The Abbess’s Well was found to contain a 400-year-old size-five woman’s shoe. Attached to the wooden sole was a raised iron ring designed to keep the shoe above the surface of unpaved streets, and thus raise the lady’s dress out of the mud. This type of footwear is called a pattern. Although iron rings from such shoes are often discovered, a complete shoe is a rarity. It is believed to have survived protected by the silt, preserved by being constantly waterlogged since it was deposited in the well.
With a powerful pump keeping the water at bay, at the very bottom of the 31 ‘-deep well two Roman coins were discovered; an Antoninianus of Victorianus (269-271 A.D.), and an Antoninianus of Gallienus (253-268 A.D.). This last bears an image of a stag on the reverse, possibly a symbol of the goddess Diana. (Diana is sometimes termed the goddess of sacred springs and wells, and it is interesting that Daly’s History of the Isle of Sheppey records a tradition that a temple at Minster was dedicated to Diana, which may have stood where
Minster Abbey was later built. In the second part of this article I will give details of the team’s investigation of what I have come to call ‘the Well of the Triple Goddess’ here at Minster, and of a three-headed female image discovered therein. It is interesting that the Romans called the goddess Diana Triformis -triformis meaning, having three forms – in other words, Diana was in some sense a ‘triple goddess’. ) From the archaeological evidence discovered around and within the Abbess’s Well, it seems possible that Sexburga inherited and blessed a pre-Christian well in the name of Christ, and adopted it as her own. (The Bible tells us that one of the marks of Divine favour towards the Chosen People was that ‘they should come into possession of wells which they had not digged’ – Deuteronomy VI, 11.)
Sexburga was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, and the sister of the more famous St Etheldreda. She was married to King Erconbert of Kent, and founded the royal convent of Minster. Upon Erconbert’s death in 664, she became abbess at Minster. Around 673 she moved to Ely, where she succeeded Etheldreda as abbess after the latter’s death in 679. Sexburga herself died c. 700, and was buried beside her sister at Ely. Her daughter St Ermengild, widow of King Wulfhere of Mercia, followed Sexburga first as abbess of Minster, and afterwards becoming the third royal abbess of Ely.(2)
According to Elizabeth Mills (the granddaughter of the Rev. William Branston, vicar of Minster, 1878-1901):
St. Sexburga, and her holy sisters, are traditionally said to have had a vast knowledge of healing waters, herbs and medicines, and that they used the waters from certain magical springs and wells for drinking and bathing the wounds of injured people, and sometimes even animals, thus effecting many outstanding cures among the sick and injured. (3)
In common with many other saints it is said that St Sexburga personally blessed all the wells she used. (4) Situated high on a hill overlooking the sea, the source of the water in Sexburga’s well is unknown, but it is thought to be fed by a spring deep beneath the Abbey grounds. Its supply has never been known to fail, even in the severest drought. In 1536 Henry VIll dissolved Minster Abbey, and over the following centuries the wells that once supplied the proud abbey with water were filled in. But such was its location (and possibly, too, the reverence and awe in which the people and Church held this particular water source) that it has remained a working well right up until the present day.
Even if one was totally to discount the recently discovered archaeological evidence that the Abbess’s Well existed during and before St Sexburga’s time, the 12th-century stone-lined well-shaft still implies that, at the time of writing, it has survived as a working well for over 850 years. Long after the Dissolution, the Abbess’s Well continued in the ownership of the church, the land being rented out for farming and market gardening. An ancient map shows the well amidst trees. The team discovered great numbers of plum stones in the Abbess’s Well, identified by Kew Gardens as ‘Prunus domestica, of the Rosaceae family’; indicating that the well once stood in a plum orchard. Sections of ancient brickwork (one with a piece of timber beam still mortared into it) were found in the well, together with broken peg-tiles, suggesting that at one time the well had a brick-built well-house over it. One might suggest that the plum-stones and other rubbish had fallen into the well after the well-house had collapsed or had been demolished, or perhaps even before the well-house was built. This is borne out by the fact that only worthless rubbish was found in the top few inches of the mud at the bottom of the well, after which (and apart from the pattern) the mud and silt was free of artefacts down to the level at which the medieval pins were discovered. Even deeper were the Roman coins, right at the very bottom of the well. Unlike so many of even the best-known holy wells in the British Isles, which for the most part are void of any contextual evidence of habitation and use in antiquity, the archaeological evidence unearthed within and around the Abbess’s Well is overwhelming. It is now arguably the best-authenticated monastic holy well on record in Great Britain, archaeologically speaking.
The first person to disturb the water of the Abbess’s Well was Ian White, of Sheerness. Indeed, because he was the only member of the archaeological team thin enough to squeeze his body through the bottleneck opening into the well, all the work down inside the well was carried out by Ian. Perhaps as a result,
in 1993 England’s news-media network – radio, television, newspapers, magazines – reported:
Sharon, wife of archaeologist Ian White, had suffered four miscarriages. Specialists told her they didn’t know what the problem was. Sharon began to lose faith and wondered if she would ever be able to have a baby. But almost exactly nine months after her husband finished working hours on end immersed up to his waist in water down a reputed healing well at Minster Abbey, Sharon gave birth to a beautiful healthy baby girl, Emily.
That was in 1991, and now the happy couple also have Hanna. (5) The land on which the Abbess’s Well is sited was sold to a builder in the 1930s, and the well was incorporated into the garden of a house called Abbot’s Gate, in Falcon Gardens.
Abbot’s Gate was purchased in 1994 by Leon and Brenda Stanford, who are perfect heritage-minded custodians, always ready and happy to show the well to people and to discuss its history (by appointment only). If any reader is genuinely interested in paying them a visit, please telephone them first, on xxxxx, mentioning my name and that of Source. A small timber shed has been built over the well, to provide protection and easy access to the well, which stands exactly as it has for centuries: clean, functional, and delivering crystal-clear fresh water, water given by the earth and blessed by history.
- Augustus A. Daly, The History of the Isle of Sheppey, Simkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. (London) 1904, p. 18.
- David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press 1992, pp. 161, 433-4.
- Elizabeth Mills, ‘The Forgotten Saint’. St. Wendreda of Erning, Newmarket. No details given. (This is a leaflet given away with plates depicting St Wendreda, sold at Newmarket.)
- This is still-current local tradition in Minster,
- Sheppey Gazette, 6 Oct. 1993, p. 1; cf. also, e.g., Jane Simon, ‘Fertility goddess gave me babies! Woman’s Own, Christmas edition 1993, pp. 52-3. Please note: Ian White worked down both the Abbess’ Well and the well of the goddess’ – one following the other – so that the ‘miracle baby’ story could be attributed to both or either. Naturally, the media preferred the ‘fertility goddess’ story. Christians will associate the ‘miracle’ with the Abbess’ Well; pagans (especially pagan feminist groups) with the ‘triple goddess’. (Unlike more purely archives-based research articles, in the context of this archaeologically-based article the primary sources are my own publications. If you wish to know more about the two holy wells of Minster Abbey, and the team’s other excavations there, full details, illustrations, photographs, etc., are contained in the following booklets:
The Abbess’s Well,
The Well of the Triple Goddess;
The Well of the Triple Goddess: What the Experts Say;
The Minster Miracles;
Minster Abbey: An Account of the Excavations.
The first three booklets were reviewed in Source 3: they are f2 each inclusive of p. & p. , obtainable from Brian Slade. If you mention Source and my article when ordering, and enclose a separate letter suggesting that the ‘Well of the Triple Goddess’ should be re-opened as a tourist attraction, as recommended by Dr Richard Morrice of English Heritage, Swale Borough Council, and our Archaeological Society, all five booklets will cost only E6, including p. & p.. Please make cheques and postal orders out to Brian Slade. The booklets are sold on a non-profit-making basis, to defray costs of research and production. It is my fond hope that readers of Source will send me further relevant information to assist my research regarding the Minster Abbey wells; and I take this opportunity to extend an invitation to readers to visit me if ever they are in this area. I can be contacted on xxxxx, evenings only, between 7 and 8.)
Note Brian sadly passed away I believe in the early 00s and the folding of the new series of Source meant that the other wells were not featured.
De Jafre you are the crown, the joy and the consolation; your love caresses, the region as one; our faith kneels, with your grace and virtue.
The Joys to Our Lady of the Fountains of Jafre by Mn. Francesc Viver and with music by Salvador Dabau. 1945.
Many visit Catalonia in Spain and visit Barcelona, Girona and of course the wonderful coastland, but for those interested in healing, holy and in this case water used for ritual purposes will find Catalonia a very rewarding location. Sites range from thermal springs to ritual mikveh and in at least one holy well. To find this holy well, a journey inland is necessary to locate the Santuari de la Font Santa with its fountain ‘dels Horts de Mari’.
Why a holy well here?
Why in this fairly remote location should there be a shrine to Our Lady you may ask. Well unsurprisingly this was due to an apparition of the Virgin seen by a local person. This was a local farmer, Miquel Castelló, who in November 1460, received a warning that the water of the spring would become miraculous. Interestingly, Miquel Castelló written statement and a document collating the witness testimony of a number of people which was commissioned by the Bishop of Girona are preserved. The following account gives fuller details of it:
“on a Friday in the year 1460, when Miquel del mas Castelló was plowing his field in Bosc Gran, a young stranger appeared to him and told him that the water from the spring had healing properties. Faced with the farmer’s disbelief, who did not believe his words, the young man prophesied that a child would die in Jafre that very day. Miquel Castelló hadn’t finished plowing when he heard knocking. When he returned home he learned that Bernat Dolza’s son had just died. Terrified, he told the rector what had happened to him and he immediately exhorted the parishioners to have faith in the waters of that source.”
Very soon after this news spread and people begun to visit to spring from all over the country. Its waters were said to be good for eye disorders, especially it is said for blind people. However, it was also good for paralysis, fevers, sore throat and rheumatism. Such was the popularity of the site that on the 25th June 1461 there was a general assembly of the local households and councillors which was presided over in the parish church by the vicar general of the diocese. At the meeting it was decided that a chapel, decided to Our Lady, would be built by the spring and make pools and eye washing places although they appear to have been now lost. The spring was formally then adopted as a holy well. The waters could be spiteful though and it is said if sinful people washed there the water would stop!
The sanctuary complex and springhead.
This 15th century complex consists of unified building made of rough stone and angular ashlars with a central chapel with outbuildings with the different rooms and a large atrium to which a lowered arcade gives access. The chapel has a single nave with a barrel vaulted roof however the cambril is modern having been destroyed in the 1930s Civil War.
The font itself flows from a small barrel vaulted arched structure with the water flowing from a metal pipe into a natural basin of rock covered with moss. One accesses the spring by a small set of stone steps down to the water. On ledges flowers and small offerings were placed indicating still an active shrine. The whole structure is made of undressed stone and pieces of pottery. Above the spring in a niche is a figure of the Virgin Mary.
This figure replaced one lost during the Civil War and is made of plaster with. She has the child Jesus on her knees and holds in her right hand a representation of the spring head and the child carries in his right hand the ball of the world. This figure was blessed on November 11, 1939, after the cult’s restoration on the 8th of September.
A place of pilgrimage
When I visited it was quiet and desolate feeling, the chapel was locked but access was easily found to the spring. However, at key dates in the Catholic and local calendar the sanctuary is busy with processions and people taking the water. The year starts with a local mass of thanks giving for the water’s role in the local town’s cholera epidemic in 1884, on or around the January 20th. Understandably the main days of procession and pilgrimage are those associated with significant feast days of our Lady such as March 25th, Feast of the Virgin Mary of Gràcia when the water from the fountain is blessed. On the May 1 or first Sunday in May there is also a blessing of the fields and of course the whole month of May being Mary’s month it is generally a popular day of devotion. The Assumption of Mary in or around the 15th August and perhaps the most significant the 8th of September, the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary with the 8th of December being recognised for the feast of The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Another notable day is Corpus Christi when a flower carpet is laid within the chapel’s aisle. Today the site is really only of local importance its countrywide fame disappearing over the years, but it remains and important holy well in Catalonia and one well worth visiting.
The 12th century church of St Lawrence, Gumfreston (Pembrokeshire/Dyfed) lies off the road to Tenby to Sageston. In its churchyard three springs rise to form a stream that flows out through a ‘bridge’ in the churchyard wall. Although well-known and historically recorded in the past, Gumfreston Wells had become a local ‘secret’ that was in danger of being forgotten as the generations moved on.
It was in 1992 that my husband Trevor and I walked down the quiet lane to find the ancient church nestling in the woods and fields around it. It seemed an odd place to build a church, halfway down a hill, with no nearby houses. We knew nothing then, of course, about the history of Gumfreston. Walking through the churchyard gate was like walking into another time, into an almost awesome sense of peace, and for us, welcome. I really surprised myself by thinking ‘This is a place of healing’.
Sometimes people or places reach out to us, and so our journey with Gumfreston began. We had come from London to live in West Wales after Trevor had been made redundant a year before. Sp we had to,e tp bosoy the church and explore the churchyards. We found the wells, very overgrown with plant life, the stream choked with leaves and debris. Then for the first time we met someone once connected with the church, the then warden, Ken Handicott, who with a tiny but devoted congregation was struggling to keep the church going. It was Ken who first told us about the healing qualities of the wells, upon which he felt he had drawn personally. Sixteen years before, he had suffered a stroke and been partially paralysed on one side. With immense determination and often daily visits to the well, into which he dipped his paralysed arm, he regained his mobility, and went on to serve as a lay-reader and warden to Gumfreston. By this time the workload was heavy for him, and although we live in Manorbier over 5 miles away, we knew this was to be our church, and that we had the time and energy to give to this place we loved too.
That summer we were wading happily through the stream clearing the surplus greenery and nettles, discovering the beautiful stone structures of two of the wells in which the springs were rising, and the water trickled from another well was buried under natural debris. We began researching the history of the Gumfreston wells and discovered that they were listed in Holy Wells of Wales by Francis Jones (Cardiff 1954 p211) as pilgrimage healing wells. What had begun as a play’ was becoming more serious now. Trevor became warden (mainly because nobody else wanted the job!) and we began looking up references to Gumfreston in every local library, and talking to local people, especially the elderly. Tenby Museum had old prints that showed Gumfreston had been a quay on the River Ritec which had carried boats from Tenby to St Florence before the river estuary became silted up and the railway embankment was built.
In our small congregation we found a real sense of fellowship and purpose to maintain Gumfreston church and wells as a place of worship and a continuing ‘sanctuary’ for modern-day ‘pilgrims’/ Over the last couple of years we have become aware of the large numbers of visitors passing through Gumfreston many who return year after year, and are using the well water. We believe there have always been pilgrims coming here, and have begun to work for them. The church lost its keys years ago and is always open, so we invite people to come in and enjoy the peace of Gumfreston. We leave books in which visitors can write their thoughts and if they wish their prayers, which we join with our prayers on Sunday. There is usually a colourful display of the history of the Gumfreston Wells. The weather had been so damp recently, that I am currently making a new one which gives us a chance to add new information. We have no resident priests but are with the Rectorial Parish of Tenbyand fortunately receive encouragement and understanding from our Rector. I would like to mention here the unsung heroine of Gumfreston, Mrs Sheila Askew, whose devotion to the church and wells, hard work, and loving patience with us and the visitors has kept us going.
The History of Gumfreston Wells
The present history is based on a mixture of known and recorded facts, on-going surmise and research by fellow-enthusiasts at St Nicholas’ Church,Pennally, Brother Gildas on Caldey Island.and the interest and advice of David Austin, Head of Archaeology at Lampeter University College. He is in charge of the dig at Carew and as we are in his ‘catchment’ area within the new few years, he has offered to try and uncover the third well.
The three springs rising in such close proximity could have had a strong mystical significance for the early Celts who considered the number three to be connected with divinity. Springs and bodies of water were favourite places for worship, being associated with divine and healing powers.
At the time of the peregrini (‘pilgrims’), the travelling ‘saints’ of Celtic Christianity, a holy man or woman probably used the wells, maybe settling there. They may have been buried there and a small chapel built. The well water could have been consecrated and used in baptism. Gumfreston was then on the river estuary that faced Caldey Island, a spiritual centre and monastery, and on ancient routes that led from the ridgeway and St Florence by water and land. The whole of West Wales was a lively centre of Celtic Christianity, St Teilo being our local saint, born at Pennally and Gumfreston.
There is evidence of relic-keeping in our church and an ambulatory for ‘private processions’ which is most unusual in such a small church. Possibilities are coming to light of monastic settlement between the churches of Gumfreston, Pennally and Manorbier. Certainly in the Celtic Church organisation these churches would have been under the control of a ‘mother’ church, a much larger Christian centre.
When the Normans invaded Wales in the 11th century they changed both social and church structures but the holy sites and practices remained if firmly established. Our present church of St Lawrence would have replaced earlier buildings, and the original saint’s name,but the atmosphere of the holy sanctuary and peace remained for the pilgrims wo are recorded as still coming to the wells for healing of mind and body.
The Holy Wells of Wales (p.90) records visits to Gumfreston Wells on Easter Day to drop bent pins into the water. This was called ‘throwing Lent away’ The last record of this was in the 17th century before the rector of Gumfreston was removed by the Puritan authorities.
In the ‘Age of reason’ the well waters were scientifically analysed, first by Dr Davis, a physician to William IV, who found their medicinal qualities, rich in iron to be ‘as good as the wells of Tunbridge’ Visitors to Tenby Spa would ‘take the waters’ at Gumfreston or pay local children to walk out collect bottled water from the wells. In the same century Dr Golding Bird, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Professor of Therapeutics to Guy’s Hospital’ also reported on the waters (see below)
We intend to have the water analysed ourselves before we recommend it for drinking, although there are locals who drink them regularly . We are told that they make a good companion to whisky! Obviously there seem to be medicinal qualities in the water for our bodies, and there is a local tradition of using, one of the wells for eye ailments; but the account of the well dressing that follows is more concerned with the healing of our ‘souls’ and releasing our intuitive ‘creativity’
Well-dressing at Gumfreston
Why we did it
Gumfreston had been used in recent years as a setting for a floral display during the week of the Tenby Arts Festival. This year (1994), the team that did the display were busy elsewhere. I didn’t want to lose our participation in the Arts festival and was glad of the chance it gave us to be something for ourselves. I offered to do a small historical display on Wels holy wells and a iide yur of Gumfreston church and wells. Well dressing came into my mind as an artistic way of combining flowers and history that certainly attracted the festival committee – who weren’t sure what it was but it sounded different.!
All good practical reasons: but of course in hindsight I realise there was a much deeper person going on in my choice of well-dressing. For a while I had privately included the wells in all our Christian festivals by slipping quietly down to the watedz. Taking small tokens such as flowers, saying brief prayers and blessings, and ‘telling’ the wells what was being celebrated in the church. I wast sure why I was doing this but it felt ‘right’. At this point maybe I should explain that I am a Third Order Francisican and as such can get away with being somewhat ‘odd!’ but nevertheless my mind was needing to understand what was going on with all this intuitive activity. In researching what joly and healing wells had meant to generations before me. And would I hope to generations after me. I found the answers I needed for myself and which I could share with others.
How we did it
In my research, I had read of three instances of well-dressing in Wales (Jones pp 89, 91-2), so I knew it had been done; using garlands of mountain ash in one case (Priest’s well, Narbesh, Glamorgan), and in others at New Year, box (at Llanisen, Glamorgan), and mistletoe (at Diserth, Radnor).
Theoretically, I knew quite a bit about the more formalised art at Derbyshire well-dressing and toyed with the idea of using a similar technique on a small scale.
It was a quiet walk that it all began to take shape in my mind. This was Wales, not Derbyshire. I had been thinking of formal teaching, of constructing to a pre-planned end. Now I realised jay was mot to be the way at all. My whole approach became simpler. Researching for my historical display had made me realise that each well in Wales had its own history, its own associations with people and the uses it had been put to, so surely a well-dressing should reflect that.
I also realised that each well would have it own environment, of structure, flora, etc., and that flora available would vary with the reason of the well dressing. It seemed important to use what was growing around us, and to search for any plants of special significance.
This approach to well-dressing was becoming personal to the people involved, their personalities responding to the ‘personality’ of the wells. It was also going to involve getting in touch with the ‘natural’ around us.
This approach to well-dressing was becoming personal to the people involved, their personalities responding to the ‘personality’ of the wells. It was also going to involve getting in touch with the ‘natural’ around us.
So the Gumfreston workshops on well-dressing became a hands-on experience for those involved. The best place to ‘dress’ seemed to be the stone surrounds of the wells. In preparation I gathered large bunches of wild grass and barley, holly, laurel and other plants from the churchyard. There was an abundance of rosehips and blackberry sprays up the lane. Wild hydrangea and ferns and red sprays of berries, ivy and wild fuchsia. It’s amazing the variety of plant-life around us!
The day before the first workshop I made my own well-dressing so that I could get the feel of it. E could choose whether to work directly onto the wells, or use a container to place on them. I sat the total peace of Gumfreston in the autumn sun and would ferns around the edges of a wire frame I’d put together. A cross of wildflowers formed the centre of ‘dressing’ to account for me the holiness and healing qualities of the wells. Other plants filled the gaps. It’s said that ‘love covers a multiple of sins’: plants certainly cover a multiple of mistakes!
We had small groups, mainly local people, for the actual ;dressing’. Some had expected just to watch the ‘experts’. I had so little to offer them really, just the actual materials and the invitation to ‘respond’ to the wells and use their own creativity. And each person seemed to enjoy it so much! We were so fortunate with the weather that week, the wells were at their most charming. All the ‘dressings’ were different, but by the time we finished there was a sense of personal satisfaction and the relaxation that working intuitively rings. Gumfreston’s Harvest festival was on the following Sunday, so the wells were dressed for that.
We will be well-dressing again at Gumfreston (by popular request) on 15 April 1995, Easter Saturday. Anyone who would like to join in with us will be very welcome. We should be there all afternoon, from midday onwards, as we will have a lot to do in the church as well. In addition, the church and churchyard are always open and visitors are warmly welcomed. Easter Sunday morning service is at 10 am.
I feel that well-dressing is here to stay at Gumfreston. We still have a lot to learn and will always be happy to hear from anyone who has ideas and information to share.
Dr Golding Bird’s Report
“In consequence of the shallowness of the basin, this water is apt to vary in composition after heavy rains, from its undergoing dilution; this however applies nearly exclusively to the solid ingredients as the evolution of carbonic acid gas from the subjacent strata is so considerable that the water is, under all circumstances, saturated with the gas, so as to sparkle vividly in a glass, and undergo violent ebullution when laced on the air-pump and very slightly exhausted.
The water is remarkable for its singular purity, the quantity of the saline ingredients being exceedingly small. An imperial gallon contains but five grains of lime, part of which exists as carbonate, and is held in solution by an excess of carbonic acid. The exceeding minute quantity of sulphuric acid is remarkable, less being present than in the purist river water. The quantity of oxide of iron is about 2.4 grains of iron.
The Gumfreston water is, however, one of the purest hitherto noticed, and owes its medical properties to the iron, and the larges quantity of the carbonic acid it contains. This extreme freedom from saline ingredients, the presence of which constitutes the hardiness of water would render this water of great value to those patients who cannot bear the ordinary chalybeate water.
The Gumfreston water resembles that of Malvern in its purity, and of Tunbridge Wells in the quantity of iron it contains, exceeding all other chalybeate waters in Great Britain in the large quantity of Carbonic acid held in solution.
In cases of chlorosis, and other forms of deficiency of red blood in the system, this water would be invaluable.”
(Quoted in Samuel C. Hall and Anna M. Hall, The Book of South Wales, the Wye, and the Coast, first pub. London 1861 republished EP Pub Ltd 1977. Gumfreston is described pp 442-7, illustration of the well p446)
In this article to celebrate 10 years of blogging I am selecting 10 of the best sites I have discovered and detailed since I had begun blogging on the topic
The Monk’s Well, Southam – Nothing can prepare you for what I could describe the most unusual of all holy wells. Hidden deep in the landscape and under a nondescript metal cover a deep shaft of squared stone plunges deep into the ground to a small well chamber below.
‘St Helen’s Well’, my house! I had to include this one as it is a possible holy well under my own house. Read how I discovered the spring and how the name of the house is suggestive of an ancient and lost St Helen’s Well
St. Anne’s Well, Brough. Often a name of a ‘unknown’ well on a map leads the explorer to discover a boggy hole overgrown and difficult to image its importance. Here a few miles out of Buxton and in the shadow of a Roman fort is a well which appears have been missed by many researchers but well built and likely to be very significant,
Lady’s Well, Mansfield. This time a site which all authorities had recorded had been lost for good and attempts by ‘English heritage’ failed to find it. A bit of local field work and contacting local people and low and behold one can find the best preserved Nottinghamshire holy well…hopefully news of a residential development on the site will not result in its final demise!
Lady’s Well, Wombourne. In this case a site which is well recorded but appeared to have disappeared off maps and thus thought to have gone. A bit of looking at older maps and field work revealed not only a magically placed site but a remarkable example of a natural spring carefully improved by past generations to create sometime quite evocative.
St Peter’s Well, Peterchurch. A slightly different affair this one. When I first visited in the 1990s it was a forlorn site with the bath filled in with concrete and all that could be seen was the head through which the water once flowed (and had been tanked). Roll forward 30 odd years and community action had restored the site wonderfully back to what it first looked like – a bit of a triumph.
Holiwell, Odell. Bedfordshire is a county not fully explored by holy well researchers and one I am slowly working through. This site again I had found an old photo and worked out its location as a likely place. Expecting to be wrong or find the site gone I was amazed to find it almost exactly as it was in the photo…well almost.
St Mary’s Well, Rhuddlan. I cannot claim to have discovered this as its quite prominent at the front of the stately house which is Bodrhyddan Hall but I didnt expect to find such a splendid building over the spring.
St Chad’s Well, Brettenham. It is probably not a St Chad’s well not an estate spring made into a folly holy well. Nevertheless a fascinating site.
St Christopher’s Well, Denton. Again another grotto and is an overgrown wilderness that appeared to lay unvisited for many years…it still had old pre decimal coins in it.
Mysterious creatures of springs and wells – The fairies, St. Cuthbert’s Well and the Luck of Edenhall
Fairies are often associated with springs for reasons I have explored previously but in this small Cumbrian village is a site associated with a famous legend involving fairies who frequented St. Cuthbert’s Well. William Hutchinson’s The History of the County of Cumberland started that
“In the garden, near to the house, is a well of excellent spring water, called St. Cuthbert’s well (the church is dedicated to the saint). This glass is supposed to have been a sacred chalice: but the legendary tale is, that the butler, going to draw water, surprised a company of fairies who were amusing themselves upon the green, near the well: he seized the glass, which was standing upon its margin; they tried to recover it; but, after an ineffectual struggle, flew away, saying,
If that glass either break or fall,
Farewell the luck of Edenhall.”
The glass in question is an ‘old painted drinking glass, called the Luck of Edenhall’ which was first mentioned in the Will of Sir Philip Musgrave in 1677. The legend became immortalised in poetry by Ludwig Uhland and Longfellow . The true origins of the chalice is that it was probably originated in the middle east and perhaps was brought back by crusaders in the 14th century being made in Egypt or Syria.
Whatever the origin the association with misfortune was apparently taken seriously by subsequent owners of the Hall. A Reverend William Mounsey of Bottesford records in 1791 in The Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1791 noted that it was carefully locked away and few were allowed to see it. This certainly worked as when the Musgraves owned the house the faeries’ promise was kept and the house and family were successful. However, upon selling the house in 1900, the family kept hold of their ‘luck’. Thirty-four years later the house was demolished!
It seems to me that there is much to de-clutter from this legend and I would suggest that it probably obscures Catholic practices at the house after the reformation. The collection of water from a holy well suggests water being collected for religious worship and certainly the Luck could be seen as a vessel for sacrament for secrete services at the house. The association with fairies a legend to keep curious protestant onlookers away…and indeed even today very few people visit the well; laying as it does on private property…..finding a photo has not been possible…the fairies minus their vessel can enjoy the solitude. The Luck today resides at the V and A museum in London.
Frog and toads not unsurprisingly you might think are associated with springs. Two old English words O.E frosc meaning frog or O.E paddock for a ‘toad’ and their derivations can be found across the country.
In Essex there are a number of Freshwell derivations which suggest from Frosc. The earliest being a Freshwell mentioned in 1086 in Great Sampford, Freshwell in the 13th century and another in Saffron Walden first mentioned in 1605. In Panfield there was a Froshwell mentioned in 1586 and Upminster a Frogwell.
There seems a strange conglomeration of such sites in Essex and elsewhere it is more common to find toads. In Staffordshire, Padwalle first mentioned in 1481in Longnor and Padwell in Barborough, as Padwell (1830) and Edwalston and Wyaston a 1314 Padewalle. In Leicestershire there is a Paddock Well noted in 1638 in Church Langton, Leicestershire and Padwell in Fulstow (from the 1840 Tithe map) and Tadewell a 13th century mention in Ferriby. Kent’s Birling has a Puddle Well noted in 1837 and a Tadwell in Minster in Sheppey (noted in 1840). There are surely others but why?
The obvious answer is that frogs and toads live in springs. However, they do not or rather very rarely. I’ve never seen one in a spring or well – perhaps the rarity offers a reason but it may be deeper than that. Toads in particular have supernatural connotations and a clue may be found in the Frogwell at Acton Burnell in Shropshire which folklore suggests the well was a guardian. Did people visit these wells to utilise the frogs for magical practices or was the frog seen as some sort of harmful creature.
Another possible source is that these animal represent totem animals which specific prehistoric groups associated with – akin to the spirit animals of first nation groups such as in the USA and Canada. This might explain the frequency of them in areas such as Essex perhaps.
A phantom black dog usually much larger than an actual dog, often said to be the size of a calf, with glowing red eyes is a folklore standard being recorded from across the country. Whether they be called Black Shuck, Barguest, Gytrash, Trasher, Padifoot or many other names often there is an association with water. As a brief introduction I have again attempted to included as many as I have uncovered.
It Lincolnshire often they are associated with bridges such as Brigg, Willingham (Till bridge) or banks of streams. At Kirton, there is a black dog was reported as living in a hole in the stream bank near this Belle Hole farm. Ponds were often associated with it such as the fish pond in Blyborough Lincolnshire. Rudkin in her 1937 Lincolnshire folk-lore notes a site called Bonny Well in Sturton upon Stow Lincolnshire which was an unfailing supply even in the great drought of 1860. One assumes that the site derived from O.Fr bonne for ‘good’. The site in the 1930s was a pond down Bonnywells Lane and was associated with a number of pieces of folklore; that it was haunted by a black dog and sow and litter of pigs which appeared on Hallowe’en. In the same county, Hibaldstow’s Bubbling Tom had a black dog protect it. Edward Bogg’s 1904 Lower Wharfeland, the Old City of York and the Ainsty, James tells how near St. Helen’s Well, Thorpe Arch:
“padfoots and barguests…..which on dark nights kept its vigil”
In Elizabeth Southwart’s 1923 book on Bronte Moors and Villages: From Thornton to Haworth, she talks about Bloody tongue at Jim Craven’s Well, Yorkshire:
“The Bloody-tongue was a great dog, with staring red eyes, a tail as big as the branch of a tree, and a lolling tongue that dripped blood. When he drank from the beck the water ran red right past the bridge, and away down—down—nearly to Bradford town. As soon as it was quite dark he would lope up the narrow flagged causeway to the cottage at the top of Bent Ing on the north side, give one deep bark, then the woman who lived there would come out and feed him. What he ate we never knew, but I can bear testimony to the delicious taste of the toffee she made.”
She relates one time:
“One Saturday a girl who lived at Headley came to a birthday party in the village, and was persuaded to stay to the end by her friends, who promised to see her ‘a-gaiterds’ if she would. As soon as the party was over the brave little group started out. But when they reached the end of the passage which leads to the fields, and gazed into the black well, at the bottom of which lurked the Bloody-tongue, one of them suggested that Mary should go alone, and they would wait there to see if anything happened to her.
“Mary was reluctant, but had no choice in the matter, for go home she must. They waited, according to promise, listening to her footsteps on the path, and occasionally shouting into the darkness:
““Are you all right, Mary?”
““Ay!” would come the response.
“And well was it for Mary that the Gytrash had business elsewhere that night, for her friends confess now that at the first sound of a scream they would have fled back to lights and home.”
The author continues:
“We wonder sometimes if the Bloody-tongue were not better than his reputation, for he lived there many years and there was never a single case known of man, woman or child who got a bite from his teeth, or a scratch from his claws. Now he is gone, nobody knows whither, though there have been rumours that he has been seen wandering disconsolately along Egypt Road, whimpering quietly to himself, creeping into the shadows when a human being approached, and, when a lantern was flashed on him, giving one sad, reproachful glance from his red eyes before he vanished from sight.”
In Redbrook, Gwent, Wales, at Swan Pool after the crying of a baby and then the appearance of a women holding a baby, a large black dog appears circles the pool and heads off a to kiln. In the Highlands a pool containing treasure is guarded by a hound with two heads and it is said to have haunted a man who drained the pool and discovered the treasure. He soon returned it! A moat near Diamor County Meath is said to contain a nine kegs of gold protected by a large black and white spotted dog. One could collect the gold if the dog was stabbed three times on the white spot. Another white dog is found, described as the size of a bullock, at Bath Slough Burgh in Suffolk.
Water appears also to be a place of confinement. At Dean Combe waterfalls in Devon the ghost of local weaver was banished by a local vicar and when he turned into a great black dog was taken to a pool by the waterfall. Here it was told that it could only concern people once it had emptied all the water using a cracked shell! At Beetham a local vicar banished a spirit called Cappel which manifested itself as a dog into the river Bela in the 1820s. Equally one wonders if the account associated with St Eustace’s Well, Wye Kent has more significance:
‘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.’
Huntingdonshire attempted a number of spas none really established itself beyond the region and have been largely forgotten, although Hail Weston came the closest. Somersham is a small market town which boasted such a locally well know mineral water which was enabled the town to be developed into a small spa. Local tradition suggests that the water was known and exploited by the Romans and that the medieval Bishops utilised it and brewed beer but I fear there is little to no evidence of this tradition and is purely wishful thinking.
The land were the springs lay was once covered by the Royal Forests of Henry II, III or Edward I, the first official note of these springs appears to have been at the end of the 17th Century. It was rediscovered under the patronage of Dr More, Bishop of Ely (which probably explains the confusion of its medieval use). By 1720, the Duke of Manchester, Lord Hinchingbrook, Dr Wake, Bishop of Lincoln, with all the principal residents in the county, joined in a subscription for erecting a house near the spring, which was fitted up with a bowling green, and other accommodations.
Healing or harming waters?
Even though giddiness, feeling sick and turning stools black were attributed to drinking the water, Cambridge Physicians continued to prescribe it to their patients. It soon attracted many people from the nearby villages and orders from across East Anglia, such as Norfolk and Lincolnshire. The water was bottled and drank not only medicinally but as a good table water mixed with wine. However, the popularity of the spa was short and after people began suffering from stone or gravel(or kidney stones as we would call them) after drinking the water and some died. As such a rumour spread around that it caused such diseases supported by some experts in the field! This spelt the end of the spa and the house fell into ruin and its materials removed.
However, there was a revival in 1750 by a Dr Daniel Peter Layard, who was physician to the Princess Dowager of Wales. Another subscription was raised, supported by a respectable list of subscribers which include various physicians and even the King and Queen. Concerned by its side effects, between 1751 to 1767 tests were conducted tried to discover why it occasionally had a detrimental effect. By 1758, a management committee of thirteen subscribers was established who set up rules. set of rules documented. The spa opened between 5.00am to 7.00am for the poor, and until 12.00 noon for everyone else. A notice posted up at the time says:
“The springs are open from seven in the morning till 10 at night, the following being the charges: Admission for using and drinking the waters per month……5 0, Non-scribers……..0 6, Talking any quantity away from the wells per quart…….0 6”
Dr Layard erected a bath house and proper accommodation near the spring and rules were set out for the use of the spa. In 1767 Dr Layard wrote an account of the waters:
However, Dr. Layard left soon after and by 1820 the site was little regarded and probably closed by 1840. For many years, only foundations remained, but this were ploughed up when a local farmer planted fruit trees.
The site rediscovered
According to Burn-Murdock, curator of the Norris Museum, St. Ives, their exact location is unknown. However, there is a site marked Spring (Chalybeate) on the appropriate O/S on Bathe Hill on the road to Somersham which would likely be the location of the spa and as it stated spring I was hopeful of some remains.
Upon visiting nothing can be seen at the site, presently the garden of a house on the hill. Upon visiting the house the owner was accommodating enough to point to a flower bed where he believed was the approximate location for the spring, although he had not seen any evidence. He was told this being the location from a previous owner. However it did not match that which is indicated on the OS map which was in a small orchard. We visited this and equally saw nothing but it was possible some scrub hid it. Perhaps another exploration is needed?
In part one we discussed the famed King’s Well in this second part we explore three possible sites which are possibly all one site notwithstanding the possibility that one is completely made up.
The most curious one to disentangle is St. Claridge’s Well Our sole source is Charles Lamb more of which in moment who claims it is described in the Black Book of St Albans although I could not find it there. In a letter to Charles Cowden Clark in 1828 he records that saint would entertain angels and hermits for the blessing of the water, who sat of mossy stones called Claridge Covers.
Who is St Claridge?
St. Claridge may have been another name for Sigur, who was a hermit who lived in Northaw Woods. Mrs Fox-Wilson in her 1927 Notes on Northaw and district in the East Hertfordshire Archaeological society journal records that the hermit built a cell near a well of pure water in Berevenue forest. This is recorded in Gesta Abbotum Mon Sci Albani 1 105 (1119-1149), dating it around the 12th Century. There is accordingly, a tomb in St. Alban’s Abbey which reads: “Vir Domini verus jacet hic hermeita Regerus et sub eo clarus meritus hermita Sigarus.”
Where was the well?
The exact location of the above is not clear, it is hinted to the south east of the church by Lamb but if he was travelling from Buntingford, it would appear to be the same as Griffin’s Hole which lays in Well Wood, a small private part of the Great Wood. A footpath from Well Road leads directly to the well and nowhere else, which suggests a great past importance for the site being the main supply for the village. This path appeared to have been recently re-opened, and the well itself has been repaired. The site consists of a roughly square pool of muddy water with an edging of old red bricks, possibly Tudor. A fence of rhododendrons has been erected around the site to prevent people falling in, but it does not deflect from the mysteriousness of the site: which is very odd and eerie. Today a metal frame is placed over it which makes it less evocative I would say. However, is it the St Claridge’s Well of Lamb?
The letter Charles Lamb wrote may help locate it as he appears to have encountered the well on a four hour walk to “the willow and lavender plantations to the south-east of Northaw Church.” However, this is confusing as it would appear to suggest that the well is to the south-east but that depends on where he was travelling from! He is known to have visited Buntingford. He refers to Claridge’s covers:
“Clumps of the finest moss rising hillock fashion, I counted to the number of two hundred and sixty…not a sweeter spot is in ten counties around”.
Some authors suggest that the name is some sort of joke, this note withstanding, Fox Wilson states that this site was called John’s Hole, and that in the 1920s requests were still made to the landowner for the water as it cured rheumatism.
Unfortunately I have been unable to find out why the site is called the Griffin’s Hole (one assumes it is a personal name) or whether it is indeed The Hermit’s Well, John’s Hole or St. Claridge’s Well in the 10 years on since publication. However I do feel that this is at least the John’s Hole site if not St. Claridge’s Well