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)
Near the river at Threshfield is the mysterious Our Lady’s Well of which The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Volume 33 1839 notes:
“Near the Free School is a spring dedicated to the Virgin and Our Lady’s Well whatever powers its waters once possessed have ceased but its sweet pellucid waters are in high repute for culinary purposes there are few inhabitants in Grassington will tolerate any water but that from Well.”
Arthur Millar in Yorkshire Notes and Queries notes that in the early 1900s the local youths used the water:
“being held by Cupid’s Chain seemed to gain fresh inspirations from copious draughts of the cooling waters.”
Val Shepherd in her 2002 Holy Wells of West Yorkshire and the Dales suggests that the well may have been associated with a pilgrim’s house for those travelling to Fountains Abbey:
“The well still flows in the garden of Bridge End Farm. Stonework in the well can clearly be seen. Recently a metal drinking vessel has been put there, attached to a chain, following the past tradition which was a common sight at many wells. Unfortunately, hygiene concerns stopped me from drinking from it.”
Whatever its role with its healing waters it is the association of a supernatural presence which singles out the well Parkingson in his 1888 Yorkshire Legends and Traditions states:
“‘Our Lady Wells,’ that is wells dedicated to the virgin, are numerous in the country. One at Threshfield, near Linton, in Craven, has the attribute of being a place of safe refuge from all supernatural visitants – hobgobins and the like.”
Today the well retains the cup with a rusty chain but I too resisted the water although I was informed by the man who lived in the cottage overlooking it that it was drinkable – the small fishes in it appeared to be enjoying it. He also informed me that there are plans for a sewerage pipe to come close to the site for a new build locally and fears that may affect it. More positively he said that he planned with the people who owned the garden the well was enclosed in to clear it out. As indeed the continuation of the steps and the stone chamber seen in illustrations of the well are currently lost in the detritus The well is still well looked after, benefiting as it does being in someone’s private garden which they graciously give access to. It is found by walking down the lane and just pass the house on the left on the lane down to the primary school of which the well is linked. James Henry Dixon in his 1888 Chronicles and Stories of the Craven Dales and the spirit is associated with the local Grammar school:
“When the school-master finishes his day school, Pam commences his evening school. Once when Daniel Cooper was passing the school at a late hour of night (which was not a very unusual occurrence with him,) he found all the windows lighted up; so he took a peep at what was going on. Now it is only proper to say, that although on that occasion Daniel was in that happy condition when a man sees double, he had still all his senses about him, and could distinguish between a horse and a haystack. Pam was fiddling to a lot of young Pams – giving them a treat as a finale to their scholastic labours. Pam looked like a “ wizened owd man, summat of a monkey sort”— he was covered with “soft downy hair, colour of a mowdwarp, but wiv more blue in it”— he “wor about bouk o three foot.” On this night Pam was seated in the master’s chair, where his head bobbed time to the music. Daniel could not perceive that old Pam had any tail, for, unfortunately, the position of the fiddler was such as precluded an inspection of such an article, even if he had possessed one! The probability, however, is, that Pam is tail-less, because his scholars, who resembled the master in all but their size, had no such quadrupedal adornments. Daniel, unfortunately, attracted notice by sneezing, which caused a break-up of the party.”
This apparently attracted the attention of the supernatural celebrants and Dixon continues:
“In homely phrase he “had tu run for it,” and only escaped by taking refuge in the very middle of “Our Lady’s Well,” which they durst not approach. They, however, waited for Daniel at a respectable distance, and kept him in cold water, till the first cock announced the matin hour, when they fled, vowing that they would punish him severely if he ever again dared to act the part of an eavesdropper.”
This is an unusual claim because more frequently one comes across the presence of a supernatural creature at the well rather than the well being a safe refuge from them.
H.L. Gee’s 1952 Folk Tales of Yorkshire gives another version of the story which is clearly an abbreviated one. It tells how returning late from a public house, a local Threshfield man sees a ghost and “a number of wicked imps or goblins”. Again he was given away by sneezing and had to be kept there until cock crow to be safe. Which sounds like a great excuse for turning back in the morning after a night out!!
But who was this or is this Pam? Some have identified as the Greek deity Pan but a spirit of an old school teacher. Harker, an ex-pupil of the Grammar School in his 1869 Rambles in Upper Wharfedale relates:
“In connection with Threshfield Grammar School there is many a ghost story; the name of the ghost that is said to dwell in it is Old Pam, and there is not a more popular ghost anywhere than he. He is said to frequent one room of the school more than any other portion of it, and for that reason it is called Old Pam’s chamber; into it few of the scholars will dare to enter. Besides being a popular ghost, Old Pam is a merry one ; he has always been fond of fun, and, according to some people, has played many a trick on persons who have passed the school in the night-time. “It is related,” says one (who is a native of this district, and was a schoolboy here), “with the utmost seriousness by eye-witnesses, that on accidentally passing the school at uncanny hours they have heard with fear and trembling the joyous shouts and hearty laughter of Old Pam’s guests as they danced to his spirit-stirring fiddle, and have seen the school lighted up most brilliantly, the glare flashing from the windows illuminating the surrounding objects.” The schoolmasters, it is said, have also been annoyed with the ghost’s jocularity; sometimes in the day strange noises have been heard, as if Old Pam were pacing the upper rooms of the school ; and if a little door, that is in the side of the ceiling, were to partly open, the whole school would be filled with terror, expecting every moment to see the ghost make his appearance. There is an improbable tale which says that a parson once left his sermon behind him in the school, and on coming to fetch it at a late hour on the Saturday night Old Pam caught him, dragged him round the place, soundly cuffed his ears, and then sent him home “….All tattered and torn.” “It is said that this was done out of revenge, for when Pam was in the flesh it is supposed that while in a state of intoxication he was foully murdered by the parson, and his body then buried by him under the hawthorn at the east end of the school.”
Being buried beneath a hawthorn of course is a traditional way to lay a restless spirit presumably originally as a stake through its heart! Perhaps visitors to the wells need not worry about the spirit as Dixon concludes with Old Pam’s lay to rest:
“We conclude our history of Pam with an adventure in which the Rev. Mr. Smith acts a prominent part. Mr. Smith was in the habit of writing his sermons in the school. It is traditionally reported, that one Saturday evening, on visiting the school after dark, in consequence of his M.S. having been left there, he was soundly cuffed by old Pam. The parson, in return for this attack, on his quitting the school on the following afternoon, left, on the master’s desk, a bottle of brandy for Pam’s especial use and benefit. The bait succeeded, and the parson discovered Pam in a state of most unghostly drunkenness. Now was the time for Mr. Smith’s revenge. Pam was fiercely attacked; and, it is said, killed outright. To make sure of his destruction, Mr. Smith is said to have buried Pam in a grave, where he did not receive the rites of the church, he not being one of the baptized brutes! The grave was behind the school. The place is still shewn at a corner of the play-garth over which the lads used to scramble, instead of entering by the gate. It is about two feet square, and a little lower than the adjoining earth.”
“Pam, as this strange tale. goes, was not killed after all. He returned to his old scenes to inflict fresh annoyances on his priestly assailant. Never was the story of a haunted room more accredited than the above adventure of Mr. Smith. Were it necessary, Pam’s doings at the present day could be verified by oaths. He still has his evening school!!”
So watch out around Our Lady’s Well late at night for Old Pam still and his imps!
If I was to be asked ‘take me’ to a classic holy well, one which had that romantic and mysterious feel and remained in the 21st century still a place of solitude and contemplation, one site I would suggest is St Cuby’s Well at Duloe. Throw in the fact nearby is the presence of an ancient church and a unique quartz stone circle and the site certainly has its attractions to the antiquarian.
In Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall by Mabel Quiller-Couch (1894) tells us:
“In the parish of Duloe, on the road which leads from Sandplace to Duloe Church, at one time stood the consecrated well of St. Cuby… The well of St. Cuby was a spring of water on the left hand side of the above road, which flowed into a circular basin of granite, carved and ornamented round the edge with the figures of dolphins, and on the lower part with the figure of a griffin; it is in shape somewhat like a font, with a drain for the carrying off of the water.”
The well is first mentioned in land documents appearing as La Welle with the valley Kippiscomebe according to Lane-Davies being Cuby’s combe being originally Cub’s combe.
Why was St. Cuby?
St. Cybi (Cuby) founded a monastic settlement within ‘Caer Gybi,’ being born 480 AD at Callington near Plymouth. His father was a Cornish Chieftain and great grandson of Cystennin Gorneu, King Arthur’s grandfather. He was a well connected saint, his mother Gwen, was sister of Non, St. David’s mother. He decided not to follow in his family footsteps and being a chieftain and so became a Christian monk travelling to Gaul establishing religious centres with his disciples. He returned to Cornwall settled at Tregony living in a cell next to a well. Quiller-Couch (1894) notes:
“This saint, who has been called also Keby by some of his biographers, was the son of Solomon, a Christian king or chieftain of Cornwall. According to the Rev. S. Baring-Gould, Solomon was a son of Geraint, and his wife was a sister of St. Non. St.Cuby at an early age gave himself up to learning and religion ; he renounced all claim to his father’s kingdom, to which he undoubtedly had the right, in favour of his brother’s family, and settled at Tregony for a short time, after which he visited Ireland, and finally went to Anglesea, where he died.”
Traditions of the well
According to Helen Fox in her Cornish Saints and holy wells the well’s water cured TB, Scurvy and rheumatism although I am unsure where this piece of folklore is derived from. The most well-known piece is quoted by Quiller-Couch wo states that:
“The well at one time was very much respected, and treated with reverence by the neighbouring people, who believed that some dire misfortune would befall the person who should attempt to remove it. Tradition says that a ruthless fellow once went with a team of oxen for the purpose of removing the basin ; on reaching the spot one of the oxen fell down dead, which so alarmed the man that he desisted from the attempt.”
In Mrs Peel’s Our Cornish Home, it is said that the basin was broken when it was rolled down Kippiscombe by drinken workmen and it came to rest beside a cottage of an old lady who heard the Piskeys laughing over it all night.
Quiller-couch notes that:
“In spite of this tradition, however, the basin has been moved, probably when the new road was cut, and was taken to the bottom of the woods ‘on the Trenant estate ; it is now placed in Trenant Park.”
This story of the well is told in more details in In the Old Cornwall Journal of April 1928 the story is told that so strong was the superstition attached to the basin that when the squire (Wm Peel d 1871) wished to move it into Trenant Park for preservation about 1863 he had to pledge himself firmly to provide the pensions for the families of any who fell dead before the carters would took the stone. Of this font one now must travel to the church being returned in 1959 when it returned to the parish. It is a remarkable relic with a snake, griffin and dolphin on the bowl’s rim. It certainly looks pre-medieval.
Recently as it spreads across Cornwall (and beyond) the well have become a rag well or as it might be called locally clootie well.
The well today
The well is made of granite ashlar with a gabled end and roof constructed of large blocks of granite with a rounded head arched entrance with an ancient Celtic cross above the door. There are two cells the outer one has a stone seat but its a cramped location to wait. The inner well house is built into the bank and has a round-headed arch to the inner well house room which has corbelled walls and a flat stone roof. The well is thought to be 15th century but its present state owes to be restored by a former Rector The Rev. Dr, Barrington Ward around 1822 when the nearby road was built and remains a delightfully well preserved granite well chapel. Despite being close to a road it is a peaceful spot shrouded by bushes and resembles a grotto where within you can be devoid of the world outside as it is dark; very little light penetrates through! The water now seeps from the side and flows into the floor of the second chamber. It is clear and flowing although it had a dead mole in it! Despite this it is a remarkable place.
In research for my Holy wells and healing springs of Derbyshire I came across the Friday Well at Roston. This certainly a curious possible holy well and may have been a traditional well dressing site. Oddly this is shown in Skyking-Waters Ancient wells of Gloucestershire (1927) showing it in 1887, but discontinued soon after apparently. Frith in his 1900 Highways and byways of Derbyshire usefully gives notes probably just before its demise. He notes:
“There had been a well-dressing, or well-flowering, here the day before, a charming Derbyshire custom which has been revived in many villages of recent years, when the principal wells are dressed with flowers and a simple religious service is held at their side. Here at Roston the school children had walked in procession from Norbury Church, a mile away, with the clergy at their head. Hymns were sung on the way, and again on reaching the well, where the Benediction was pronounced. “
He continues to note that:
“The Roston well — it bears the name of Friday Well— stands in a farm-yard at the back of a little Primitive Methodist Chapel, and I found the entrance decked with branches and boughs of trees, with a rustic arch adorned with cheap flags, large festoons of laburnum and lilac, and a scroll bearing the text, ” O ye wells, Bless ye the LORD, Praise Him and magnify Him for ever.” Over the well itself an elaborate structure had been raised, which had evidently kept the good women of Roston very busy for the previous day or two.”
The author continues to give a very detailed description of how the well-dressing was done:
“A large wooden frame had been made, rounded at the top and divided into separate partitions. In the centre was a representation of Battle Abbey, with the outline of the building picked out in haricot beans. A Union Jack waved above it— the red being supplied by geranium petals, the blue by cornflowers, arid the white by rice. The background was of moss and other green stuff. Devices were formed out of Indian corn, linseed and small fir cones ; daisies in intersecting rings and as borders were a feature of the decoration, and bright colours were obtained from different flower petals. ” Peace unto All ” was the legend at the top of the frame, and at the foot *’ GOD save the King,” while a dove of haricot beans spread benign and sheltering wings over all. The whole was a most creditable display of ingenuity and good taste. The frames are coated over with wet clay into which salt has been kneaded in order to keep it moist and adhesive, and the flowers and other ornaments are then stuck on one by one.”
Such effort and celebration suggested that this would be a significant well to discover whether it still existed and I did wonder whether the lost of the custom was caused by the loss the well.
Origin of the name
Friday Well is an interestingly named site which may owe its name to a Pagan origin linked to the goddess who gave us Friday so to speak. There are a few other such Friday sites but they are not as common as those derived from Thur or Grimr derivations for example. The site may be named after the Norse goddess Freya being derived from Frīgedæg and indeed the place was present at the Domesday book suggesting an older origin in line with Norse settlement perhaps. Was the settlement a localised site of a Freya cult? Skyking-Waters gives a suggestion that the name is from St. Frideswide instead. Alternatively it could be due to Christian observation on Good Friday especially being that it is associated with a Methodist chapel. Was the well dressed on Good Friday. Sadly, I can find no further details or clues.
Finding the well
Roston is indeed a small hamlet and very little appears to have changed over the intervening years. I enquired at the house which was the Primitive Methodist and was greeted with a welcome and an offer to see the site. The well’s fabric indeed still exists but was now dry. I was told that its water emptied into a large stone trough who the owner thought was possibly a tomb suggesting again perhaps an ancient significance was it associated with a local saint from a lost church? Sadly, the water ceased running, as the farm above the well has tapped it.
Many claim to be the oldest holy well but by virtue of its association with the first Christian ministry of the Saxons, St. Augustine’s Well Ebbsfleet is perhaps according to tradition the obvious claimant for the oldest ‘English’ holy well.
However early records are rare and its first reference appears to be on the 1874 OS map and its earliest written account is George Dowker in 1897 article for Archaeologia Cantiana On the landing place of St, Augustine records:
“Formerly Ebbsfleet was supposed to be situated where the farm-house of that name stands, and is so placed in the Ordnance Maps of Thanet; of late the spot has been shifted to near ” The Sportsman,” and by a spring of water called St. Augustine’s “Well, chiefly on the representation of the late Mr. W. R. Bubb, who resided at Minster; he walked with me to the spot where the present memorial cross is erected, and explained his reasons for concluding that the landing must have been there, and not at or near the Ebbsfleet Farm, as usually represented. These reasons were chiefly the presence of a large oak tree that was said to have formerly grown there, and the proximity of the place to Cotting-ton-field, which he thought a corruption of Godman-field.”
Interestingly it almost suggested that it was Bubb who coined the well and it would appear to be a possible invention by revived Catholics. This is supported by Rev Boggis (1907) in A history of St. Augustine’s College Canterbury,, as a Catholic revival:
“The next station is made at St. Augustine’s Well — just to quaff a draft from the spring which he is fabled to have brought bubbling up through the briny sands.”
The account also adds a piece of folklore similar to the tradition that like Becket at Otford he perhaps prayed for water, which is related by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin who states the saint was able to provide water for his thirsty followers by striking the ground with his pastoral staff but this could equally be another site. Iggleseden (1901-1946) Saunters in Kent. He describes:
“..a stagnant pool, the remains of a well, which had the reputation of miraculous healing powers, while the water was also used for baptismal purposes.”
However, Howarth (1938) who notes:
“near which is a well (known locally as St. Augustine’s well). This will continue to delude people into the notion that there is a real foundation for the view.”
Yet, Certainly by Stanley (1956) in The London Season pilgrimage was formalised:
“Near to the fifth green is a little spring of clear water which is known as St. Augustine’s Well, which legend holds appeared miraculously to slake the Saint’s thirst. Every year this site is the scene of the pilgrimage headed by the Warden of St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, who, in his role of Bishop Knight, kneels by the spring to drink the water.”
Why wonder what connection that has with what James Rattue (2003) in his Holy wells of Kent records:
“Apparently local nuns used to clear it out, but this has ceased to happen for almost twenty years.”
I was also informed by some members that this site was where a drunken vicar drowned, but have not substantiated this story.
St Augustine or St Mildred’s Well?
Howarth (1938) does not support the fact that Ebbsfleet was the location where on Whitsun A.D. 597, Augustine baptised heathen Saxons, amongst them, possibly King Ethelbert in the area. However, local lore recognised first a tree and now an ornate carved cross dating from the 1800s which depicts the story however there is a possible another association. James Rattue (pers com) suggests that the well may have originally been dedicated to St. Mildred, daughter of Queen Ermenburga, who was given land at Thanet, by the converted King Egelbert, as an apology for killing her brothers. Here, she founded a monastery, and became the Abbess of Thanet Minster; latter becoming their patron saint.
The view that the well was dedicated to her is based upon local tradition that a stone, located within proximity of the well, bore the footprint of the saint, made miraculously as she set foot on the land at Ebbsfleet, from France. One tradition associated with St. Mildred’s stone is that it could never be removed. Whenever it was it returned to the same position! This is a common folklore belief only spoiled here by the fact that St. Mildred’s stone has not been seen since the 1800s!
The site today
When James Rattue visited he described it as:.
“a pit, now usually dry, but which represents St Augustine’s Well.”
Now on the 17th fairway of St. Augustine’s Golf Course St. Augustine’s Well is a large circular steep sided pool, from which a sluggish stream arises, flowing to the sea. I found it full of water but not very pleasant more recent photos have shown cleaner water.
There were a number of attempts to capitalise on the fame of Tunbridge wells perhaps the most curious was Adam’s Well. The earliest reference to the site is found in Thomas Burr’s (1766) History of Tunbridge Wells:
“on forest a little beyond the Rocks, a spring of water was discovered, which was palled in and called Adam’s well. For what particular reason this spring was taken such notice of, it is not now very easy to determine.”
Burr (1766) perhaps implies that the well was discovered within living memory, and its fame being established before that of Tunbridge. However, Alan Savidge in his 1995 Royal Tunbridge wells stated that it ‘enjoyed local repute’ long before the arrival of the Tunbridge spa.
Richard Onely’s 1771 General guide to Tunbridge wells stated that it was:
“very lately a medicinal water, called Adam’s Wells has been inclosed and made convenient for the remedy of scorbutic cases, and cutaneous eruptions; and which, from its well known and tried quantities, it is thought may answer in many cases, as well as sea water.”
Jasper Spange’s 1780 Tunbridge wells guide makes a small note of it.
“ADAM’S WELL which is a pure limped spring of a most soft pleasant drinking water issuing from a very high hill in a small farm in the parish of Speldhurst.”
Interestingly he adds:
“Those ingenious practitioners in physic the celebrated Doctors Pellet Shaw Lamont Blanchard & c always recommended it as fine drinking water and made use of it themselves for that purpose the last of whom has been overheard to declare to Mr Sprange Bookseller & c in his shop that there was no better drinking water in the neighbourhood”
Thus suggesting there was some attempt to promote the spring In John Russell Smith’s 1837 Bibliotheca Cantiana he states:
“SPELDHURST Adam’s Well at Speldhurst being as circumstantial a History of its Original and the cause of its present improvements the high esteem it has always been held in as a drinking Water and its salutary effects in the various Cases and Disorders herein described and attested as can at present be produced 12mo pp 29 London 1780”
John Evans in 1821 Recreation for the Young and the Old records:
“Adam’s Well distinguished for its transparency is in the vicinity.”
Alan MacKinnon (1934) in his History of Speldhurst, perhaps drawing upon an earlier source as well as describing it in greater detail, clearly indicates it origins as a holy well, in the use of the words holy water below:
“Adam’s Well is situated in this Manor, it was famous long before the Tunbridge Wells waters were discovered, and issue from high ground at Langton. In much repute in ancient times, it is impregnated with no mineral, saline, nitrous or earthy matter, whatever, it is quite free of sediment, and was called in old times a ‘holy water.’ In 1765, the owner of this well, on digging into the rock to enlarge the pool or bath came upon an ancient stone arch, whose date could but mere matter of conjecture. This arch can be seen at the present day.”
Combined with the traces of medieval stonework, the medieval origin is supported by its name: Adam, being taken from a local fourteenth century landowner, John Adam. Fortunately, Adam’s Well still exists, much as MacKinnon (1934) describes, now enclosed in the private grounds of Adam’s Well House: a bungalow, built in the nineteenth century, after a bout of vandalism, to house a caretaker for the well. The well itself arises in a shallow, square brick-lined chamber. Enclosing this is a large stone alcove, built to allow a sheltered access to the well during inclement weather. The back wall of this shelter is of a crude nature, indicating that it may indeed be of considerable age. A stone set in its arch notes: ‘ADAMS WELL 1868.’
This date presumably refers to when the well was repaired, and the house built. In front of this is a much larger and deeper rectangular stone chamber. I was informed by the then owner in the mid-1990s, Mrs Wolf, that dogs and horses were washed within this. Over this chamber is an iron grill with the letters ‘AW’ in its centre. Mrs Wolf also told me that the quality of the water was so good that it was bottled and stored on ships for long periods. Much of the popularity of the water came from the fact that it lay along the busy old road from Peacehaven to London.
Burr (1766) implies that its powers, to cure human ailments, were largely forgotten and:
“…at present it is only famous for the cure of mangy dogs, in which case it is esteemed an infallible remedy.”
Yet, John Britton (1836) in the Descriptive sketches of Tunbridge Wells and the Calverley estate; with brief notices of the picturesque scenery, seats, and antiquities in the vicinity describes it as being noted for:
“its transparency of its waters, and for its efficacy in some cutaneous disorders.”
Recent analysis showed that the water contains copper, which perhaps explains its lower popularity compared to Tunbridge, as copper salts were not as efficacious as iron salts. This is supported by Mrs. Wolf who noted that it had not cured her rheumatism!
Extracted from Holy wells and healing springs of Kent
In 2018 I took over the Source Archive which digitally stored the articles from the Source Journal (old series) established by Mark Valentine, Source (new series) edited by Roy Fry and Tristan Gray Hulse and the Living Spring journal established by Richard Penderick who had held onto the archive at Bath University.
The archive has been an invaluable resource but the observant would not know that certain articles were missing and when I took over the archive I stated that I would try to make these available digitally for the first time since in this month’s example since 1994.
Thus at the 10th anniversary of the Insearchofholyandhealingsprings blog site I had decided to complete the task. The first article is a lengthy one so I have decided to divide it into two parts.
This week is a transcription of an article missing from the second of the new series of Source (the first missing) by Professor Charles Thomas:
Antony Charles Thomas, CBE DL FBA FSA FSA Scot was a British historian and archaeologist who was Professor of Cornish Studies at Exeter University, and the first Director of the Institute of Cornish Studies, from 1971 until his retirement in 1991. He was recognised as a Bard of the Cornish Gorseth with the name Gwas Godhyan in 1953. He sadly died in 2016. Again the copyright belongs to the author I shall remove if anyone from his estate requests so.
Professor Charles Thomas
Holy Wells of Cambourne
extracted from Christian antiquities of Cambourne H.E Warne Ltd 1967 pp120-6
by kind permission of the author
Originally published in Source – The Holy wells journal New Series No 2 Winter 1994
Over most of Cornwall, the word ‘well’ is used to describe both artificial-dug vertitical shaft, and a natural spring, whether flowing or static. The traditional ‘holy wells’ of Cornwall are seldom more than a foot or so deep, and can be nothing more than water issuing from the ground or from a rock. In Cornish, a single word normally surfices for both well and spring (OE funten, MC fenten, ModC fenton cf OB funton, ModB feunteum) derived form the Latin fontana, and apparently superseding some such purely Celtic word as that represented by the OC pol ‘pool, well’ The strict term for a dug well, Mod C pyth dialect peeth seems to be confined to domestic usage and does not occur in place names as far as is known.
The wells described in this chapter are all of some age, and have some claim to be regarded as ‘holy’ or ‘lucky’ in the broad sense, while at least three of them are, or were, thought to possess medicinal virtues. In no way can this be claimed to be a complete catalogue of which wells in the parish and there must be many others unknown to the writer – indeed unknown to anyone except the few people who live near them. The selection discussed below nevertheless forms a good representative group, such as may be found in most parishes in west Cornwall. These wells are shown on the map, and their eight-figure National Grid references are listed at the end of this chapter, as many of these wells have never been distinguished on the Ordnance Survey sheets.
- Vincent’s Well This is a copious natural spring which forms one of the sources of the Red River. It can be found, with some difficulty, on the so called Bolenowe Moors (actually a marsh with heavy scrub undergrowth), and is still esteemed in Bolenowe as being of great antiquity, and as possessing water of healing qualities. An old and choked lane leads to it from the farmlands of the Forrest tenement of Illogan, and the well itself seems to be just on the Ilogan side of the Camborne-Illogan bound. The spring issues out from under some horizontal granite slabs. Charles Henderson visited vincent;s well in the 1930s, though he confused it with fenton Io (no. 10 below) He wrote ‘ It is famous throughout the district for its healing qualities especially with regard to the eyes. One old man asserted that doctors had frequently taken some of its waters away to London (this claim is repeated to the writer at Bolenowe in 1962 by several ladies of the village)’…The spring is most difficult to find and approach….it is a fine clear copious spring issuing from the ground, and there are no traces of any building covering it….’Vincent’s Well must be carefully distinguished from ‘Vincent’s Shute’, the name of a spring and watercourse behind the house in Bolenowe village occupied (1962) by the Vincent family. In the case of Vincent’s Well, the Vincent part is probably, as in field-names, a corruption of the Cornish word fenton,
- Newton Moor Well A mile or so down the Red River Valley from Vincent’s Well there is a large patch of uncleared ‘moor’ resting on a bed of decomposed gravel. In the middle of Newton Moor, just south-east of the present Newton Farm, is this well; not very deep, but it has never been known to run dry, even in drought and is enclosed in a high granite structure on top of which is a cast-iron Victorian pump. In front of the well is a paved area of square granite blocks. There is no reason to think that this well is regarded as either holy or medicinal, but it is included here to avoid any further confusion about the well on Newton Moor, and the genuine holy well (no 10 below) on the other Newton tenement at Troon.
- Well at Peter James’ Carwynnen In an open space among several little holdings at Carwynnen, the best-known of which is sometimes named after a recent occupier (Mr P. James), there is a small shallow well enclosed in an arched or covered edifice of rude granite blocks. It is shown here as an instance of a number of wells in the southern half of the parish, all of which are probably medieval in origin. There is a very similar one (4 The Reens Well). In the lower part of the valley called ‘The Reens’, just east of the road from Killoivose to Treslothan, which once served a now vanished farm called ‘Rocks’ or ‘Rock’s farm’ and the writer remembers as a boy seeing yet another somewhere in the woodlands of Pendarves park.
- Treslothan Well The little spring in the central area of Treslothan village, hidden behind a battered iron door, is enclosed in a handsome Gothic arch, and would look more at home in a Breton hamlet than in a Cornish one. Despite the appearance of weathered antiquity, this is really Victorian, a tasteful shrine constructed at the same time as the model village of Treslothan. Visitors sometimes assume wrongly, but understandably that this is a holy well of great age.
- Silver Well No one seems to know where this picturesque name cam from. The little natural spring is so called lies immediately below, and on the west side of, the enclosed public footpath across the former Pendarves Woods at the Stennack – a footpath which runs from the lane behind the vicarage at Treslothan, across a style iontpo the field called Hound close and joins the road from Stennark to Carwynnen Water (Lower Cardwynnen) opposite a modern bungalow. The site is now choked by brushwood resulting from tree felling operations, and few people except some elderley persons in the locality could even locate this spring. Thirty years ago, the write could remember it being a lucky well into which pins had to be thrown for a wish, and it gave its name to Silver Well Lane, the upper part of the roadway from Stennack to Lower Carwynnen.
Part two to include Maudlin Well, Sandcot Well, Fenton-Ia and Bodryan Well
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.
A possibly un-investigated sub-genre associated with holy wells and varied water bodies are the coach and horse phantom. The phenomena is wide spread. And in lieu of a longer elaboration I thought I’d introduce some examples here and please feel free to add other examples in the comments. The furthest south one I have found is association with the Trent Barrow Spring, in Dorset Marianne Daccombe in her 1935 Dorset Up Along and Down Along states:
“One dark and stormy night a coach, horses, driver and passengers plunged into this pit and disappeared, leaving no trace behind. But passers-by along the road may still hear, in stormy weather, the sound of galloping horses and wailing voices borne by them on the wind”.
However, the majority appear to be in the eastern side of England which is not surprising as these were and in some cases are boggy, desolate marshland areas which clearly were treacherous in olden times.
In Lincolnshire, the Brant Broughton Quakers (1977) note a site in their history of the village. This was found on the corner near the allotments on Clay road was a deep pond called Holy well pond or All well or Allwells. They note that
it was haunted by a coach and horses which plunged into its waters. I was informed by Mrs Lyon, the church warden that the pond was filled in at least before the writing of the above book.
In Lincolnshire, most noted site is Madam’s Well or Ma’am’s Well. Wild (1901) notes that this was a blow hole which Charles Hope’s 1893 Legendary lore of Holy wells describes as a deep circular pit, the water of which rises to the level of the surface, but never overflows and such it is considered bottomless by the superstitious. Rev John Wild’s 1901 book on Tetney states that they were connected to the Antipodes, and relates the story which gave the site its name:
“In one of these ponds a legend relates how a great lady together with her coach and four was swallowed bodily and never seen again. It is yet called Madam’s blowhole”
Wild (1901) also tells how:
“a dark object was seen which was found to be a man’s hat…when the man was retrieved belonging to it….my horse and gig are down below.”
Norfolk has the greatest amount. Near Thetford a coach and four went off the road and all the occupants were drowned in Balor’s Pit on Caddor’s Hill, which they now haunt. On the right-hand side of the road from Thetford, just before reaching Swaffham, is a place called Bride’s Pit, after a fathomless pool once to be seen there. The name was actually a corruption of Bird’s Pit, but tradition says that a couple returning home from their wedding in a horse drawn coach plunged into the pond one dark night, and the bride was drowned. An alternative origin is that it may be a memory of the Celtic Goddess, Brede or the early saint St Bride.
The picturesquely named Lily Pit was found on the main road from Gorleston to Beccles (A143), hides a more ominous tradition, that it was haunted by a phantom. The story states that at midnight a phantom pony and trap used to thunder along the road and disappear into the water. What this phantom is confusingly differs! One tradition states the phantom was a mail-coach missed the road one night and careered into the pit, vanishing forever. This may be a man named James Keable who lost in the fog fell into the pool in 1888 his body never being recovered. Or a farm-hand eloped with his master’s daughter, who fell into the pool and drowned. He so racked with guilt later hung himself on a nearby tree. This may be the a man from Gorleston who went mad after his only daughter was lost in the pool, and so hung himself from an oak tree which stood there into the 1930s. There is an account in this Youtube video.
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