If there was a claim for the Scottish holy well visited by the most famous people it must be the suitably named Scotlandwell. It would add that it is also one of the most picturesque holy wells in Britain and very easy to find – being signposted down a lane with parking off the village that shares its name.
A Roman site
It is said that in the late 1st century A.D the Romans named the well Fons Scotiae’ . Whilts it is known in 84 AD, Roman soldiers were marching between their camps at Lochore in Fife and Ardoch in Perthshire however, there does not appear to be any evidence especially archaeologically, but what is known that a hospital dedicated to St Mary was established in the area in 1250 by the Trinitarian Friars. It is locally said that they utilised the water. Their association may have attracted one of the most famous of Scotland’s kings – Robert the Bruce. It is alleged that he came here to be cured of leprosy. Janet and Colin Bord in their 1985 Sacred Waters note:
“Robert Bruce, King of Scotland (1306-29) suffered from leprosy, and at least three wells were reputedly used by him in his search for a cure. He is said to have been responsible for a well at Prestwick (Ayr) which flowed where he stuck his spear in the sand while resting from his struggles with the English. He stayed for several days, and his leprosy was reputedly cured. He is said to have built a leper hospital for those who could not afford treatment. He also visited the St Lazarus Well at Muswell Hill (London) being granted a free pass by the King of England to do so.”
It is thus said to have become a place of pilgrimage. Another monarch, Mary Queen of Scots also is said to have visited it. However, the Friar’s establishment remembered as Friar Place was demolished in 1587 probably not long after Mary’s patronage at the start of the great Reformation in Scotland.
However, the well itself must have been accessible as Bill Anderton in his 1991 Ancient Britain tells us that:
“ records show that Charles II travelled from his Dunfermline Palace to take the waters.”
Whatever these records are, are in themselves unclear and whilst the ancient royal seat of Dunfermline is indeed not many miles from the site, I have been unable to find further details.
The site may have slowly disappeared into obscuring if it was not for the fortitude of local landowners. When in the early 1820s the site, itself common land, could be described as:
“an almost unapproachable slough of mire and filth” and within it “a half ruinous building used sometimes as a washing house and sometimes as a slaughter house.”
This may have been some remains of the Friar’s buildings perhaps and it is impossible that some older stone in the current fabric of the well house could be from this date. The building of the ornamental well and its nearby wash house was done by a Thomas Bruce of Arnot who owned land in the aras between 1857 and 1860 after acquiring the land. He employed David Bryce an important Edinburgh architect to draw up plans for both in 1857 which consisted of a large stone lined bath like chamber covered accessing all around by covered by grill. Over which is an ornate wooden roof, akin to a alpine chalet style. All painted dark green. Water bumbles up through sandy soil in the water quite obviously and then emerges from a small gap into a small circular basin and then run off. Steps go down from both sides to reach the outflow. Using stone available from quarries nearby that the well was completed soon after at the cost of £154 in 1858. On either side of the water spout are the initials TBA for Thomas Bruce of Arnot and his wife Henrietta Dorin embossed. The nearby washhouse also bears TBA and 1860.
Thomas Bruce of Arnot stated in his memoirs:
“The improvement of the village and of its “Well” has cost me more money than some might perhaps say I aught to have expended upon them, but it has been a subject of great interest to me and I have been far more than repaid in one way at least by the gratification it has afforded to the villagers by a desire for whose moral improvement it was that I was mainly actuated in what I did and am still doing.”
Then in 1922 two years after the death of Sir Charles Bruce of Arnot the well and wash house, were handed over to the people of Scotlandwell as a gift and the site is currently looked after by the Parish council.
The bath house locally called ‘The Steamie’ was where laundry was washed, being connected to the well’s underground water source, ceased being used in 1960s but has recently been restored as a small tourist attraction and currently leaflets are given out concerning the well and the bath house
In Ruth and Frank Morris’s 1978 Scottish Healing Well they note:
“In October 1978 we met there a women, her husband and brother who had travelled from Edinburgh a round trip of some 80 miles which they frequently made, to fill to two large bottles with clear well water. One of the men, a cancer sufferer had been induced to take the water some time before and found it did him some good , clearing a stubborn body rash that he continued to use the water: “If it was good enough for Robert the Bruce, it’s good enough for me. ”
However, reaching for the metal cup I took myself a large gulp not noticing that the sign that he had read when Ruth and Frank Morris had visited in 1978: ‘Health giving water of Scotlandwell was for many years used to help cure the sick…” was replaced with UNFIT TO DRINK DO NOT DRINK!
Oh well this was a few summers ago and I am still okay. Whether you drink or not, Scotlandwell is one of the country’s most attractive and perhaps oldest healing springs.
On and off I have been surveying the holy wells of East and West Sussex which is an area which does not appear to have collected much academic interest. Thanks to myself and James Rattue Kent is now covered more than satisfactorily, ditto Rattue’s Surrey and now Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex in a way await further exploration. Thus it is possible that new and interesting holy wells maybe found in these counties, ones missed by Jeremy Harte’s 2008 magnus opus English Holy wells
Battle is such a place. It is a place I have visited many times and thought there should be a holy well there and indeed there was. However, the Wishing, Holy or Dr Graye’s Well is described by one source Her Grace the Duchess of Cleveland’s account of the History of Battle Abbey as:
“a square opening five or six feet wide, enclosed by a massive stone wall nearly seven feet high; a flight of steps led up to it on either side, and at each angle was what he called a vase, or receptacle for flowers and votive offerings. The spring was conveyed to the other side of the church wall.”
It was located:
“On the north side of the Cloister Garth stood the Holy Well, from which some writers have derived the name of Senlac, given to this place by Ordericus Vitalis. It is mentioned in Queen Elizabeth’s time, as a place held sacred by recusants’ :-whither many, especially women, resort, like a young pilgrimage, and call it Dr. Graye’s well.’
Did this have an older history? The author suggests that its water gave Battle its old name of Senlac – possibly – but there is no evidence as such- and the origin of that name has itself been debated. What is more likely perhaps is that the spring provided the domestic water supply of the Abbey and later converted post Reformation as suggested above as a holy well needed to meet Catholic recusant use.
Who was Dr Graye?
The author continues to explain that Dr Grey was a priest, the Dowager Viscountess Montague’s chaplain, a zealous Roman Catholic, who resided at the Abbey in Elizabethan times. He was imprisoned by Sir Francis Walsingham. He appears a likely person to concoct a holy well out of an available spring.
What happened to the well?
The author continues to record that:
“ It was afterwards known as the Wishing Well, and was unfortunately destroyed in the course of Sir Godfrey Webster’s alterations, in 1814….and now furnishes the drinking water of the household; it is remarkably sweet and pure, and we appreciated it for its own sake long before we were made aware that it was the charmed water of the old Holy Well.”
And so it disappeared into obscurity after perhaps a brief period of fame – a holy well of the Catholic faith in hiding and as such of great interest.
The real sacred well of Battle?
However, another claimant to have an association with the Battle of Senlac is still to be found. King Harold’s Well is enclosed in a circular well can be found in the front garden of Three Virgins Lane.
Local tradition records that the spring was drunk by King Harold before the Battle of Hastings. Whether it is originally a Saxon well is unknown it certainly does not look it. It is perhaps not the most attractive site but at least something remains to remind us of the days of King Harold.
In a quiet corner of Kent is one of the county’s most renowned wells. A well known local legend is associated with St. Eustace’s Well (TR 062 458) Hasted (1797 -1801) based his knowledge on the work of Roger of Wendover describes the well as follows:
“In it (Wye) is a hamlet, called Withersden, formerly accounted a manor, in which there is a well, which was once famous being called St. Eustace’s Well, taking its name from Eustachus, Abbot of Flei,…..a man of learning and sanctity…to come and preached at Wye, and blessed a fountain there, so that afterwards its waters were endowed by such miraculous power, that by all diseases were cured.”
Hasted (1797-1811) relates the properties of the well in detail:
“..from the taste of it alone, the blind recovered sight, the lame their power of walking, the dumb their speech, the deaf their hearing, and whatever sick person drank of it in faith enjoyed renewed health.”
The legend set in 1189, during Godfrey de Luce’s tenure at the vicarage. Pope Innocent III sent St. Eustace, a Norman Cistercian Abbot, who held his first meeting at Wye after a terrible sea journey. Thirsty, he searched for water, and finding this spring, blessed it, afterwards it attracted pilgrims, and a guardian priest was established. A specific legend tells of a woman, possessed of the devil, and ‘swollen up as it were by dropsy’ came to a priest, whom upon seeing her urged her to go the spring. This she did and no sooner had the women drunk the holy water, she recovered but vomited forth a pair of black toads, growing into black dogs, then black asses! The woman surprised vented her anger against these manifestations and the priest intervened, sprinkling the holy water on ‘they flew up into the air and vanished, leaving no traces of their foulness.’
When I first became interested in holy wells – some would say obsessed – my interest being piqued by a copy of Janet and Colin Bord’s 1984 Sacred Waters picked up in a Truro bookshop back in the 1990s and in it was St Eustace’s Well. It was described as follows:
“The well is close to Withersdane cottage 3/4 mile southeast of Wye and reached along a lane by Withersdane hall. the well now has an air of neglect but in medieval times it was famous because it was visited by St Eustace when visiting the country. People visited for eye cures.”
As the well was place with the Saint Edith and The Black Prince’s Wells, both exceptional sites, I expected something on an ilk. With the book in hand and armed with a map I looked for the site, and looked and looked. I was expecting to find something beside the road at the corner where the map albeit a less than accurate landranger placed it. To no avail I could not find it. So finally I decided to ask a person in a nearby cottage thinking that perhaps the site was lost in the undergrowth or else unfortunately filled in. Especially as Robert Goodsall in his 1968 A second Kentish patchwork first visiting the site in 1966, found the site overgrown with saplings and weeds, but recently the site has been tidied up. There was report of steps and rails from the roadside down to the spring head with a stone nearby near the pond for leaving water vessels.
Upon asking I thus discovered that the person I was asking had it in the corner of their garden. The owner, a Mr. John Hilton and he gladly showed me the well. It consists of a shallow rectangular shaped pond, with its source enclosed within a square brick structure with a concrete top, to the north of the actual well basin. I was informed by the then owner Mr. Hilton that even in the 1976 drought, there was no apparent difference in depth, the only considerable change being the influx of agricultural fertiliser causing overgrowth in algae over the years.
Within recent years it has been reported that St. Eustace’s Well had become very yet overgrown again. Perhaps due to a change of ownership it has again been cleared of bushes and this time it was noted that the water table had fallen due to water abstraction for mains supply nearby and thus turned the well more into a murky pool. However, I noticed that in a recent photo from Will Parson of the Pilgrimage Trust that it looks much more inviting with the steps down to it having been tidied up and the water looking clear and clean. It is clear from the planting that this back garden holy well is much appreciated.
Sitting rather incongruously beside a main road is the Beggar’s Well. A site which is often without explanation included in works on holy wells however there is no folklore or history recorded of the site. Described Patchell and Patchell (1987) Old Wells of Warwickshire describe it as like a dog kennel. Indeed this structure is very confusing. When Lichfield road was widened the well was rebuilt sometime 13 metres to the west of its original location between 1962 and 1983 it appears and surprisingly no one remembers exactly when or by whom. Even more confusing is that a surviving photograph held in Warwickshire Record Office showing woman standing by Beggar’s Well which is dated between 1900-1909 it appears completely different in shape, size and appearance. When I visited it was evident to me that the brickwork did not match that seen in the photo. Thus it asks the question why were new bricks used, what happened to the original brickwork or is this the original brickwork which could be found behind encasing possibly seen in the photo. It is possible that the brickwork is that seen below the conical shape but one might ask why not completely rebuild and what happened to the conical top. It is all very odd. Furthermore the site is now completely dry no one thought it appears to direct the spring (assuming it was still flowing when moved). All in all it looks like an amateur job but someone must know for sure.
Is it a holy well?
Some sources emphatically include it in surveys of obvious holy and healing wells. But there is no evidence of this. Nor is there evidence of any age either. It’s earliest reference is on the first series OS map it appears. Yet could it be a holy well? Is there more to its history? Let us examine the evidence.
Is it really St Peter’s Well? St Peter’s Well ‘appears in many old documents’. The parish church is dedicated to Sts. Peter & Paul, but the wells exact location is unclear unless it refers to the Beggar’s Well? The evidence against this, but not exclusively problematic, is that many wells which share the same name as their parish church are located near the parish church – the Beggar’s well is not. Furthermore one could suggest that St Peter as a dedication suggests that as a holy well it may have derived its name from the church and thus emphasising its proximity.
Is there any other evidence? Well no but perhaps it is worth exploring the name Beggar’s Well. No authority appears to give reason for its origin. The obvious answer is that this was a site frequented by beggars which provided free water. There are other Beggars wells in the country, perhaps the most similar and indeed it even looks like Coleshill’s Beggar’s Well, is that of Threapwood, Staffordshire. Here its is said that workers at the now disused sandstone quarry discovered this source of water in the 1840s. Landowner Earl of Shrewsbury allowed locals to use it. Although that does not really explain the name!
There is another possible if rather hypothetical origin to the name. Is it derived from St. Bega? It seems unlikely St Bega as a saint is restricted to the north west of England it appears and I know of no evidence of her cult in this area of the country. However what is more interesting is that she was a Celtic saint and there is evidence of Celtic remains here.
Is the Romano-British settlement a clue?
In 1978, local enthusiasts discovered Roman pottery and more significantly it is I discovered this unattributed record:
“workmen removing the original stone lining in preparation for sinking a new well to one side of the dual carriageway found a crock pot buried behind one of the sandstone blocks, breaking it open they found it was full of Roman and Romano-Celtic coins – not one of which had been minted after 63ad.”
This report is of the Beggar’s well and indicates the ancient use of the well and the deposit of coins an offering. The date link suggesting perhaps to prevent the impact of Bouddican raids. This finally suggests that if the well in the article in question is the Beggar’s well we can state fairly emphatically that it was a sacred spring.
Was the well linked to a Roman settlement with a Roman temple found on Grimstock Hill. This was occupied from the 1st to 3rd century and the discovery of silver plaque showing a figure holding a shield suggests it was dedicated to Mars or Mercury. Unfortunately, such a deity is not a strong indication of a local water cult. What was worked out was that the square shrine was built on top of earlier ovens where food may have been offered to the gods.
An important Celtic religious site would be likely in Coleshill as it was the meeting point of three Celtic tribes: the Cornovii, the Dobunni and the Coritani. Of course the observant amongst you will see the name of the hill is significant – Grimstock – is this our final clue albeit a Germanic one? It is highly suggestive that Grim derives from Grimr, a version of Odin the Norse chief god and stock derived from Old English ‘stoc has been suggested as meaning ‘place’ quite often for a holy place. Was this a name given by Germanic settlers seeing the temple remains one wonder or did they celebrate their god here and utilise the spring? Interesting here might be another clue to the age of the well and its name. Böðgæðir is another name for the god, as is Báleygr, and whilst there is no evidence of either being used locally or indeed how they are pronounced, consenental drift over the years may have made it sound like beggar and the ill informed made it so.
Is the Hawkswell evidence?
Also in the parish is a Hawkeswell. Now I have mooted a theory that such named wells are vestiges of ancient motif wells which were named after the motif animal of different tribal groups that met there perhaps.
There is a record of a Cold Bath in the parish which was said to cure leprosy. Where this was I have been unable to ascertain but it may have been possibly associated with the spring. Its association with leprosy is significant often leprous beggars were an issue for many medieval towns and villages was this a way to prevent lepers reading the centre. It was after all on the edge of the settlement.
So in summary I would say there is not much evidence for Beggar’s well to be a holy well in the Christian sense but there is some circumstantial evidence that it is sacred spring in the Roman British time and possibly into Anglo-Saxon times. It does feel that the Beggar’s well holds more secrets and perhaps one day these will be revealed. So for now Beggar’s well is not a holy well.
One of the most evocative holy wells is perhaps one of the most unique fittingly. The first to record it was William Hals in his 1685-1736 History of Cornwall. He records that:
“In this parish is that famous and well-known spring of water called Holy-well (so named the inhabitants say, for that the virtues of this water was first discovered on Allhallows- day).”
So far not perhaps that unusual. But he continues:
“The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea- cliff’ rocks, beneath full sea-mark on spring-tides ; from the top of which cavern foils down or distils continually drops of water, from the white, blue, red, and green veins of those rocks. And accordingly, in the place where those drops of water fall, it swells to a lump of considerable bigness, and there petrifies to the hardness of ice, glass, or freestone, of the several colours aforesaid, according to the nature of those veins in the rock from whence it proceeds, and is of a hard brittle nature, apt to break like glass.”
Over a hundred years later, John Cardell Oliver’s 1877 Guide to Newquay romantically records:
“It is a somewhat curious place. After passing over a few boulders the mouth of the cave will be reached, where steps will be found leading up to the well. This rock-formed cistern is of a duplicate form, consisting of two wells, having a communication existing between them. The supply of water is from above; and this water, being of a calcareous nature, has coated the rock with its earthy deposits, giving to the surrounding walls and to the well itself a variegated appearance of white, green and purple. Above and beyond the well will be seen a deep hole extending into the cliff.”
Thomas Quiller-Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall
“This well has Nature only for its architect, no mark of man’s hand being seen in its construction ; a pink enamelled basin, filled by drippings from the stalactitic roof, forms a picture of which it is difficult to describe the loveliness. What wonder, then, that the simple folk around should endow it with mystic virtues?”
Cures for children
Richard Polwhele, in his 1803 History of Cornwall states
“The virtues of the waters are, if taken inward, a notable vomit, or as a purgent. If applied outward, it presently strikes in, or dries up, all itch, scurf, dandriff, and such-like distempers in men or women. Numbers of persons in summer season frequent this place and waters from countries far distant. It is a petrifying well.”
Further details are given by John Cardell Oliver
“The legend respecting the well is, that in olden times mothers on Ascension Day brought their deformed or sickly children here, and dipped them in, at the same time passing them through the aperture connecting the two cisterns ; and thus, it is said, they became healed of their disease or deformity. It would seem that other classes also believed virtue to reside in its water; for it is said that the cripples were accustomed to leave their crutches in the hole at the head of the well.”
“The virtues of this water are very great. It is incredible what numbers in summer season frequent this place and waters from counties far distant.”
Why is it St Cuthbert’s Well?
One account tells how Alchun, Bishop of Holy Island, Lindisfarne in 995 AD to take the body of previous bishop, St Cuthbert, to Ireland to escape Danish raiders. However, it is said that the weather drove them to the north coast of Cornwall where they were beached and settled at time and built a church at Cubert. They presumably rested at the cave and the relics touched the spring which then became holy and healing. After settling down in Cornwall, the Bishop and the relics finally set off to Durham where the saint was finally laid to rest.
This seems a fairly unlikely journey and a story made up by the ill-informed it would seem as the parish is named after St Cubert, an 8th century companion of St Carantoc, who came to convert the local pagans. What is interesting is that there are two holy wells in the parish. A more traditional chapel type being found on higher ground and I would hypothesis that this was constructed to sway local people from visiting the more primeval sea cave. Perhaps as that did not work local Christians applied the St Cuthbert story to the sea cave to attempt to finally push out the pagan connotations – the saintly name however still jars in this most primitive and ancient site.
Interestingly despite it being a wholly natural site it became a Scheduled Monument by Historic England in 2001
Essex is not that noted for its holy wells, but as Holy Wells and Healing springs of Essex will attest there are a few and perhaps the most interesting is that of St Botolph’s in the picturesque village of Hadstock.
The earliest reference is in William Harrison’s 1567 Description of England he records:
“divers wells which have wrought many miracles in time of superstition, as St Botolph’s Well in Hadstock.”
John Wilson in his Imperial Gazetteer, III (1872) describes it as:
“A well set round with stones, and called St. Botolph’s Well, is in the churchyard.”
John Player’s 1877 Sketches of Saffron Walden and its vicinity notes
“We see it in that ever flowing stream passing under the Church yard wall affords an ample supply of pure unadulterated water of which the villagers gladly avail themselves. The well St Botolph’s well is near the Church and may it long continue a symbol of the purity of that heavenly lore which should proceed from that desk where the Rev Addisson Carr so long known and so much respected in this district pursued the even tenor of his sacred calling for so many years.”
However, by the time of Royal Commission on Historic Monuments, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, I (1916) it was:
“In the churchyard—a well, known as St. Botolph’s well, now covered.”
Indeed there would be some confusion regarding the exact location of this well. The church guide describes a pump to the west end of the churchyard as the well (but the only pump apparent was that across the road), however I was informed that this well was the one picturesquely situated by the road beneath the church. This is a brick-lined square well whose spring percolates into a pool covered in duckweed. No evidence of any material earlier than Victorian is apparent, suggesting it may date from when the pump was established. A wooden fence has been erected around it to prevent people falling in, but apparently the well itself has been covered.
An ancient site
Locally there is evidence of Iron Age occupation. Not far on the Cambridgeshire border is a ring enclosure, and pot shreds have been found in Hadstock Wood as well as bronze axe and an arrow in the village area. However, it is for its association with an Anglo – Saxon saint, Botolph, which has more relevance to the well.
Who was St Botolph?
“that place sanctified to religion in the days of the holy Botolph, there at rest”,
So states Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury in 1142. The well could be a significant site associated with a significant Anglo-Saxon saint interment. In 1974 Dr Warwick Rodwell carried out an archaeological investigation of the church and reported in The Antiquaries Journal, March 1976, 56 Part 1.:
“Total excavation of the nave, crossing, and transepts of Hadstock church in 1974, together with a detailed examination of parts of the upstanding fabric, revealed that this well-known Anglo-Saxon building is not a single-period structure, as has long been assumed. Three periods of Anglo-Saxon work are now known, the earliest of which probably belongs to the pre-Danish era: it comprised a large, five-cell cruciform church which, it is suggested, may be part of the seventh-century monastery founded by St. Botolph, at Icanho. Rebuilding on a monumental scale took place in the early eleventh century and the possibility is discussed that this was Canute’s minster, dedicated in 1020. The church was extensively repaired in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, following the collapse of the central tower. Subsequently the decline in the size and importance of Hadstock as a village saved the church from further extensive alteration.”
These three stages would appear to link to the idea that Icanho was destroyed by the Danish armies in 869 and by 970s all there was left was a one priest chantry chapel. It is thought that Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester obtained the King’s permission to remove the saint’s remains. He would then distribute them to a newly established Thorney which then became dedicated to Botolph, the royal reliquary at Westminster and Ely (which got the head). Although tradition also states that in 1090 they were stolen from Ely! What is interesting is that against the south transept’s east wall an empty grave. This being a significant location it seems highly likely this would be an important person. The village continued its connection with the saint having upheld a pre-Norman charter which allowed a fair to be held on St Botolph’s Day, the 17th of June.
Curative or kill?
Its waters have had a mixed reputation. Tradition records their ability to cure scrofula. Until recently the well was the important source of drinking water for the village. One tradition suggests that if a ring was dropped into it by a lovelorn girl she would find her true love. This tradition was supported by the finding of two rings recently in the cleaning of the well. Wilson (1970) notes a strange activity was practiced within living memory by the white witch: to keep the water pure, dead cats were placed down the well. Obviously, this was not continued for on one occasion the water was the harbinger of a typhoid outbreak, and forty percent of the population—or 40 people—died (although there is no evidence for either). The contamination was the result of the Rev F. E. Smith using the spring as an outlet for his lavatory. If this was not bad enough, one of his staff was a typhoid carrier! This is also notwithstanding, that it was commonly believed that the spring water drains from the graveyard above it: and hence it has earned the name ‘bone gravy’. Despite all these traditions, this did not deter the locals, who vouched for its goodness. Even when piped water was brought to the village in the 1930s, many locals could not see the point as the well water was good enough.
However, once cleaned it could surely be as good as suggested by this review in the London Strand Magazine:
“A Well In a Churchyard. Hadstock. in Essex. Possesses what is probably a unique water supply. It ls entirely derived from a deep well in the pariah churchyard The well is over 800 years old and ls known is St. Botolph’s well. The Inhabitants of Hadstock declare that it contains the best tea making water in Great Britain, and as the village in question ls one of the healthiest places In Essex there ls undoubtedly some truth In their boast?”
Sadly, now apparently due to some odd health and safety claim the well itself is covered with a large metal sheet and covered with flints, however its water still fill the pool beyond.
One has the feeling that St Botolph’s Well is one of the most significant wells of Anglo-Saxon England but so little is known. It is good that in a way that what was once a little known holy well is better known.
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.