To those reading this blog, who may not be overly familiar with the study of Holy wells and healing springs, may be familiar with the throwing of coins into springs. However, this is a relatively recent invention, before this activity, itself of course quite expensive in older times – pins were used.
Pins you may ask? Why would you have a pin on you? Well of course in those days pins were commonly used, especially by women to hold hats on and so were generally available. A glance through works such as Jones on Holy Wells of Wales and Hope’s Legendary Lore of Holy Wells produces quite a number.
The custom was quite widespread from Northumberland (Worm Well) to much of Wales where at for example at Ffynnon Enddwyn, Merioneth, Wales evil spirits were ward off by doing so. At Piran’s Well, Cornwall, Hope (1893) tells us:
“Beside a path leading to the oratory of St. Pirian’s, in the sands, there is a spot where thousands of pins may be found. It was the custom to drop one or two pins at this place when a child was baptized.”
At Bede’s Well, Jarrow Durham, as noted before ill children were brought to the well and crooked pin was put in and at St. Helen’s Well, Sefton, Lancashire would inquire about the fidelity of their lovers, dates of marriage etc by as Hope (1893) notes:
“the turning of the pin- point to the north or any other point of the compass.”
In Chepstow, Monmouthshire a well called, the Pin Well, Hope (1893) again notes:
“those who would test the virtues of its waters said an ave and dropped a pin into its depth.”
Certain days were associated with giving pins. May time, particularly at St Maddern’s Well, Madron the first Thursday in May to consult this oracle by dropping pins states Borlase (1769) in his Antiquities of Cornwall.The Wishing well of St. Roche, Cornwall it was visited on Holy Thursday or Ascension Day. At Wooler, Northumberland, the Pin Well was visited by a procession of people from the village on May Day and each would drop a crooked pin into it and made a wish. Cruelly bent pins were daily thrown into St. Warna’s Well, Isle of Scilly to wish for ship wrecks! However in the majority of cases it was for a benefit of the depositer in a positive way. Quiller Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall (18??) notes that at Menacuddle Well:
“On approaching the margin, each visitor, if he hoped for good luck through life, was expected to throw a crooked pin into the water, and it was presumed that the other pins which had been deposited there by former devotees might be seen rising from their beds, to meet it before it reached the bottom, and though many have gazed with eager expectation, no one has yet been permitted to witness this extraordinary phenomenon. “
There appears to be an association with fairies and pins. At the Pisky Well, Altarnun Hope (1893) states:
“In the basin of the well may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who have visited it out of curiosity, or to avail themselves of the virtues of its waters. A writer, anxious to know what meaning the peasantry attach to this strange custom, on asking a man at work near the spot, was told that it was done “to get the goodwill of the Piskies,” who after the tribute of a pin not only ceased to mislead them, but rendered fortunate the operations of husbandry.”
Such an association appears as far north as Cartmel, Cumbria. Stockdale, in Annals of Cartmel notes:
“Near to this holy well are two cavities in the mountain limestone rock called the ‘Fairy Church’ and the ‘Fairy Chapel,’ and about three hundred yards to the north there used to be another well, called ‘Pin Well’, into which in superstitious times it was thought indispensable that all who sought healing by drinking the waters of the holy well should, on passing it, drop a pin; nor was this custom entirely given up till about the year 1804, when the Cartmel Commoners’ Enclosure Commissioners, on making a road to Rougham, covered up this ‘Pin Well’. I have myself long ago seen pins in this well, the offerings, no doubt, of the devotees of that day.”
In many places, such as at St. Philip’s Well, near Keyingham, Yorkshire girls would caste pins for love predictions. At Brayton Barf, Yorkshire, a reason for this is given. A local woman is said to have been enchanted by the fairies looking into a well here and they appeared to explain to her their need for pins. Apparently, they used hawthorn thorns for their arrows and these were very ineffective but some of the fairy folk had noticed that the pins used by local women would be an ideal replacement. However, the fairies had no real way of obtaining the pins by enchantment and so they arranged that any women who visited the well and dropped a pin would find out the identity of their true love reflected in the water. After awaking from her enchantment she threw a pin in and she saw the face of her sweetheart and so spread the news and the fairies got their arrows! Sadly, the well is lost. However, the tradition has spread as far as Rhosgoch in Herefordshire where Hope (1893) was told:
“who haved close to the well for two years, tells me that the bottom was bright with pins — straight ones he thinks — and that you could get whatever you wished for the moment the pin you threw in touched the bottom.” ” It was mostly used for wishing about sweethearts.”
Despite this rather imaginative reason for dropping pins, why were pins dropped. Well in many cases, when the pin was bent, this action resembled that done in prehistoric times to swords deposited in ritual areas as votive objects. For example it may be significant that at some wells pricking the finger before casting it away may have had a deeper meaning. Does it represent a sacrificial aspect to giving a votive offering? So perhaps take a small pin box and caste a pin not a coin if you must.
It is good to see the county town has still retained a site which Dr Daniel Layard (1759) described as spring to the north of Huntingdon as:
“The pure and limpid water called Horse-Common Water at Huntingdon, remarkable for its softness and little sediment.”
So it is still found, the Horse-Common water (TL 238 726) named after the area of land it is found in. Today this common is an odd relic surrounded on all sides by modern housing and a leisure centre. The spring produces a fine flow and is responsible for the marshy area here and its own survival; it would be an unsuitable area to build on. The spring arises from a substantial structure, with steps down to the water which flows out at some force and forms a channel through a paved area. An older structure can be observed within the more modern well house. There was a cast iron lion’s head where water flowed out of its mouth via a pipe and a chain with a cup beside it. All evidence of this has gone.
Local people state that they used it to wash their hair as it was better than tap water and picked water cress around the area. There appears to be no record of any medicinal use although it is clear that it was so regarded. Can we suggest considering its proximity to a Roman road, that it was known by Huntingdon’s Roman inhabitants? This site was also called Cowper’s Spring, associated with poet William Cowper who had a bath house built and presumably what remains are the relics of this.
Lying in the churchyard of the thatched chapel of St Michael, is a particularly fine example of a baptismal well, called Holy Well or St Michael’s Well (TL 403 658) However before the arrival of a Mr and Mrs Brown to the village the site was very neglected and little known. The well settles under a large tree in the corner of the tree which may be significant and is enclosed in a yellow brick half barrel well house, at the back of this is a cross shaped window. This has been erroneously reported to project the image on the head of the baptised individual. However, I was informed by Mrs Brown that there was no evidence to support this although it is an interesting theory. The well arises in a shallow circular well with a gravel substrate (the source of the water is not clear), and is approached by a series of steps between two low walls and black metal railings which encircle this approach to the well with a small gate. A black metal guard has been placed in front of the well, and this can be raised to give access.
There would seem to be local disagreement over the use of the well and indeed whether it was dedicated at all! Its proximity to the church suggests its use in baptisms, although no clear records could be found. Notwithstanding, Mr Brown did speak to an elderly lady whose mother was baptised in it about 100 years ago.
Well dressing was introduced in 1986 making two of Cambridgeshire’s Holy wells that have had this distinction. The dressing consists of a tryptic arrangement with a variety of images and motifs: The Golden Hind with bells and anchors; East Anglian Life: a windmill and church; The Harvest is ripe. A number of photographs of these ceremonies are displayed in the porch of the church. Sadly lack of interest within the village seems to have caused the abandonment of the ceremony, as it was only Mrs Brown and another elderly lady doing the rather time consuming work. Hopefully one day it will be restored.
PAPWORTH ST AGNES
Arising in a boggy hole is St Agnes’s Well or Nill Well (TL 268 625).The spring area is stained red indicating it schalybeate nature but it is difficult to discern exactly where the spring arises. It is found in a small copse just off a small road. Does the name Nill refers to fairies? Possibly not as there was a Gilbert de Knille recorded as a landowner in 1279, but did he get his name from the well? Which St Agnes is referred to is unclear especially as the much restored church is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and this likely that as Reaney (1943) notes that the village takes its name from Agnes de Papewurda. It is possible that this is the spring noted by Scherr (1986); recorded as Anneiswell, in the 13th century. Someone along the way has made the site related to a saint byb accident