Mermaids are traditionally thought of as a marine phenomena but there are a number of freshwater accounts such as that noted in Herefordshire, three in Suffolk (Bury St Edmunds, Rendelsham, Fornham All Saints) and another in Gloucestershire at Timsbury. The peak district probably because of its remote and desolate landscape claims two!
The first is associated with the Black or Blake Mere a small pond of irregular shape, lying in a little hollow on the summit of the high hill of Morridge, about three and a half miles. from Leek in Staffordshire. The pond appears to have a reputation of being haunted. In the pages of The Reliquary, Camden quoting Nicham, says it is:
“A lake that with prophetic noise doth roar; Where beasts can ne’er be made to venture o’er— By hounds, or men, or fleeter death pursued, They’ll not plunge in, but shun the hated flood.”
Robert Plot in his 1689 Natural History of Staffordshire notes that:
“no Cattle will drink of it, no bird light on it, or fly over it; all which are as false as that it is bottomless; it being found upon admeasurement, scarce four yards in the deepest place; my horse also drinking, when I was there, as freely of it as ever I saw him in any other place; and the Fowls are so far from declining to fly over it, that I spoke with several that had seen Geese upon it; so that I take this to be as good as the rest, notwithstanding the vulgar disrepute it lies under.”
Neither account mentions a mermaid and it is unclear when this creature is first applied to the site. One of the first accounts perhaps is Charlotte S. Burne 1896 notes in her “What Folkore is, and how it is to be collected” in the North Staffordshire Naturalists’ Field Club, Annual Report and Transactions. Two origins for the existence of this mermaid are given. One account states that she was a women ,who during a stormy night was drowned there by her lover after he discovered she was pregnant with his child. Another story suggests that she was a witch and was drowned by the local people. It is said that as she drowned she cursed the person who accused her and days later he was found clawed to death in the pool. Local people state that she can be seen combing her hair and enticing people to their death. She is also said to have warned locals who were draining the lake to check its depth by threatening to flood the local town of Leek – they subsequently stopped!
Perhaps the more famous of the Peak’s merfolk is found in The Mermaid’s Pool a mysterious pool at the foot of Kinder Scout, a strange site which appears to be a relic of pre-Christian water worship particular as the water is said to have healing qualities. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells notes:
“There is a local tradition that a beautiful nymph ….who comes to bathe daily in the Mermaid’s Pool, and that the man who has the good fortune to see her whilst bathing will become immortal.”
It is likely that Hope is sourcing Henry Kirke’s 1869 article “The Mermaid’s Pool” in The Reliquary notes:
“At Old Oak Wood, near Hayfield, Derbyshire, is the Mermaid’s Pool, where a beautiful woman is said to enter the water every day, and whoever has the good luck to see her will become immortal and will never die.”
Hope records a tradition of someone who had seen the mermaid thus:
“The old folk of Hayfield, moreover, have a long story of a man who, sometime in the last century, went from Hayfield over the Scout, and was lucky enough to meet this mountain nymph, by whom he was conducted to a cavern hard by. Tradition adds that she was pleased with this humble mortal, and that he lingered there for some time, when she conferred on him the precious gift of immortality.”
The best time to find visit the Mermaid’s Pool is midnight on Easter eve when she could favour you with your wishes, but if she did not favour you she will drag you to your death!
It is possible of course that local production of methane gases produced willo-the-wisps which were seen as the mermaid but that would ruin a good story would it not? Or perhaps you might argue that someone caught the said mermaid and put it in Buxton museum! – go along and have a look!
Sometimes mysterious creatures at wells and springs have mysterious origins and perhaps one of the most mysterious is Nanny Rutt, who is associated with an artesian well in Math Wood near Bourne, Lincolnshire.
The story tells of a young girl who arranges to meet her lover in the wood and sets out early in the evening and meets an old woman wrapped in a shawl which obscures her face. She warns of the dangers of the wood at night as well as why she should not elope without knowledge of her parents. She ignores this advice and reaches the well where she has arranged to meet her lover. Waiting for a long time she realises her lover is not going to come and it has become very late. With tears in her eyes she becomes hopelessly lost and stumbles upon an overgrown stone house in a clearing and there in its doorway is the old woman who’s face is revealed it the moonlight to be hideous. As the girl runs, the old woman’s shadow paralyses her and her throat becomes so dry she is unable to scream and is never seen again.
How old is it?
An interesting legend, who apart from the name of the Old women is very modern and resembles an ‘urban legend’. What is unclear is why there is a well included. Does this suggest that at some point it had a greater role? Did Nanny Rutt haunt the well? Was she another Jenny Greenteeth? Did the girl actually drown in the well?
Its origin is equally mysterious, neither the authors Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock in their Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Lincolnshire, Volume 5 or Ethel Rudkin in her Lincolnshire folklore , both very thorough folklore collectors in the turn of the last century
According to the Wikipedia entry, the earliest reference is 1920s, but the name Rutt is possibly very old deriving O.F rut the same origin as Latin rugitus both meaning ‘sexual drive’ and perhaps suggest a greater date. The contributor notes:
“It may be possible to suggest an explanation for the story of the disappearance. Perhaps at some date a girl took her developing sexuality into Math wood, met someone who complemented it and was soon taken off to a home for un-married mothers never to return to Northorpe. An explanation was required for the other young people and at a time of reticence about sexuality, Nanny Rutt was invented. If this happened when the use of the French language in England was remembered, the story is medieval. Nanny Rutt could also be based on a real woman who once lived in the wood”
Rutt could also reference rutting or a goat both again very sexualised! Nanny is a common name for a fairy character but equally for someone who might offer baby sitting!
Although the woods still exist I could find any evidence of a well on the 1880 O/S or current map, and according to my correspondence with local historian Rex Needle, he believed the whole story is made up, but when, why and by who and more importantly why include a well, name it after the main character, but do not explain why. In all it is a very confused story. Even more confusing is that since including the well in my work on Holy wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire the well is included in a geocache! Does it exist then?
One of the frequently encountered mysterious creatures near springs and wells, as well as other bodies is called Jenny Greenteeth. In an article in the Transactions and proceedings of the American Philological Association in 1895, Charles P.G. Scott notes in the Devil and his imps remarks:
“Jenny Green-teeth, in the vernacular Jinny Green-teeth, is the pretty name of a female goblin who inhabits wells or ponds.”
The name Jinny Green-Teeth is recorded in the Folk-speech of South Cheshire (1887) and A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Chester (1886) stating that:
“Children are often deterred from approaching such places [as wells or ponds] by the threat that “Jinny Green-Teeth will have them.”
Edwin Waugh notes in 1857 Sketches of Lancashire life and localities
“ lurking in the streams and pools, like ‘Green-Teeth,’ and ‘Jenny Long Arms,’ waiting, with skinny claws and secret dart, for an opportunity to clutch the unwary wanderer upon the bank into the water.”
Often description is given of this goblin and it appears to be restricted to the west of the country, with references made in the Notes and queries around Manchester, Birmingham and as far east as Shropshire. Roy Vickery in a piece on his excellent Plant-Lore blog reports an account from Bebington Merseyside in the 1980s:
“Although Jenny Greenteeth was usually unseen, in about 1920 the bogey which inhabited two pools beside Moss Pitts Lane in Fazakerley, ‘had pale green skin, green teeth, very long green locks of hair, long green fingers with long nails, and she was very thin with pointed chin and very big eyes.”
Moreover it is possible that in Lincolnshire the same goblin is encountered as Jenny Hearn, Hurn or Yonde. This name is found associated with a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. Unlike Jenny Greenteeth the creature is described. In Lincolnshire folklore Ethel Rudkin reports:
“The pygmy propels the dish rapidly across the stream by means of a minute pair of oars, the size of teaspoons. It is said, that having reached shore this being crosses the road and proceeds to browse in the field. ‘Or again it is said that a ‘thing’ is known to come crawling out of the water, having large eyes, and long hair, and tusks a walrus. It goes into the fields to feed. The river bank here curves in the shape of a horse-shoe, consequently a short-cut footpath has been used for years to counteract this bend.”
A possible ancient origin of this creature is suggested by another Lincolnshire location: Jenny Stanny Well a site has appeared to have passed through a number of name changes. Abraham de la Pryme discussed it in his 1680 discussion of Lincolnshire described the well as Julian’s Stony Well and now it is called Stanniwell. The name is suggestive of a Roman heritage.
Here interestingly, the name Jenny Stanny well has been supported by the suggestion that the site is haunted by a ghost presumably of that girl who carries her head under her arm. She is said to have drowned in the water. Is this a confusion of the Jenny Greenteeth tradition?
Interestingly in Preston the goblin is associated with a holy well. In the anonymous 1852 piece A Prestonian, ‘Preston More than Forty Years Ago’ in the Preston Chronicle:
“Near Friargate, and not far from the houses now called Mount Pleasant, was ‘Lady well’, about which the superstitious old women used to tell strange tales of one ‘Jenny Greenteeth’, who was said to be occasionally seen riding on a broomstick, cutting wonderful capers.”
The association of drowning with Jenny Greenteeth is significant as it would seem that the folklore probably developed as a way to warn children off playing in dangerous areas of water. This being done by associating the goblin with algae and duckweed. A note in an 1820s version of Notes and queries records Jenny Greenteeth being a name for duckweed in Birmingham. In A Glossary of the Words and Phrases of Furness (North Lancashire) (1869) she is called
“Jinny-green-Teeth — green conversa on pools.
“green scum on ponds, but supposed to imply the presence of a water-sprite or “boggart”, a terror to children as they pass the pond on which the appearance is seen.”
This is emphasised by an article by A.R. Vickery, Lemna minor and Jenny Greenteeth, in Folklore 94: 247-50, 1983. whose correspondent noted:
“ I was brought up in the Upton/Crenton area of the west side of Widnes in Lancashire (now Cheshire) …It was and still is…a farming area and many of the fields contained contained pits – some of them have quite steep sides Jinny was well known to me and my contemporaries and was simply the green weed Duckweed, which covered the surface of stagnant water.”
Finally, it is interesting the correspondent also notes
“Children who strayed too close to the edge…would be warned to watch out of Jinny Greenteeth, but it was the weed itself which was believed to hold children under water. There was never any suggestion there was a witch of any kind there!”
And such does a folk tradition become diminished! However, it was a clever way to use a common plant of stagnant water to signify dangerous waters – pity it wasn’t used in 1970s Public information films – Dark and dangerous water!
Enfield might not seem the most profitable for holy and healing well hunting but there were some interesting sites. Sadly searching for the first site was less than fruitful. According to Samuel Lewis’s 1831 Topographical directory) there is a spring called King’s Ring, although Hope (1893) calls it Tim Ringer’s Well, he also notes that whose waters never freeze nor dry up. Lewis (1831) notes its location:
“To the south-west of the town, and about a mile from Old Bury, is a smaller moat, on the estate of John Clayton, Esq; and to the south of Goulsdown lane is another, separating two square fields, in the first of which are the remains of out-buildings belonging to a mansion in which Judge Jeffreys is said to have resided, and near the entrance a deep well called King’s Ring, the water of which is deemed efficacious in diseases of the eye: a celt was dug up in 1793, at the depth of twelve feet from the surface.”
G. M. Hodson and E. Ford 1873’s A History of Enfield note that it was on the south side of Nag’s Head Lane, near Ponder’s End. It was a deep well, probably the brick conduit noted in Ogilby’s roads 1698. Mr Leonard Will, local historian notes that Godfrey Maps reproduction of the Ordnance Survey map of Ponders End, 1896, shows King’s Ring (WELL) (Site of) on the south side of Southbury Road, just to the east of Churchbury Station (now called Southbury station).
The site does not appear to have survived as the area is heavily urbanised, it would appear to correspond to Poppy drive and despite some green spaces there nothing could be found!
More mysterious is the pond located in Trent Country Park called Camlet Moat, a name which first appears in 1440 A.D. The name has been thought to suggest that this was the site of the legendary castle of King Arthur Camelot. The site is also noted for a ghost of Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Sussex and Hertfordshire and Constable of the Tower of London whose ghost was apparently first recorded in the 12th century. He is said to guard a pot of treasure he hid down a nearby well before he was arrested for treason. Local legend also records has a paved bottom beneath which the treasure would be found which is protected by a magic spell. Curiously he is also associated with guarding treasure in ‘castle’ well in earthworks at South Mimms (cf Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Hertfordshire)
A steep crater in the north-east corner of the moat has been identified as the well. During excavation in the 1920s by the then owner, a on 6th April 1924, the Zanesville Times-Signal, an Ohio, USA based newspaper, ran a full page story with the headline ‘The Ghost that Guards the Treasure in the Well’ discussing the issues of disturbing the ghost of Geoffrey de Mandeville. According to A. Mitellas 2015’s A Concise History of Trent Country Park Version 3:
“The February 21st 1903 issue of Country Life tells of a story about the ‘last owner of The Chase’, who, having been accused of treason, hid in a hollow tree. Later that night, he sneaked out to make his escape but then fell down the well at the north-east corner of Camlet Moat and ‘perished miserably’. The ghost of this last owner is said to haunt the moat.”
Also associated with the site is Dick Turpin who would hide by the moat. He does not haunt the site but according to local Pagan and New Age groups, a female ghost called the ‘The White Lady or Goddess’ does. The groups who have taken to adopting the site as a significant religious. They have adorned the trees with votive offerings and make bowers from local branches in which they place shrines. As Mitellas (2015) notes:
“Camlet Moat is considered to be a sacred place by a Pagan and mystic network that stretches out far beyond the local vicinity, and, indeed, the country. Local Pagans who regularly visit the site occasionally build bender huts from the surrounding branches and brushwood, complete with shrines. In particular, the well is considered to be sacred. Followers have adorned a partially felled hornbeam tree that leans over the well with prayer rags, symbols and trinkets.”
C. Street’s 2009 London’s Camelot and the Secrets of the Grail believes that the site was a place of healing and inspiration being a site of an ancient oracular shrine. He also notes that it is one of the corners of ‘The Barnet Triangle’ with the east Barnet’s St Mary the Virgin and Monken Hadley’s St Mary the Virgin churches forming a perfect equilateral triangle. A triangle which is claimed to be a powerful conduit of energy feeding ley lines locally.
The name Camlet is thought by many to have been corrupted from Camelot and hence theories have developed regarding a link to the legendary King Arthur, indeed it has been called ‘London’s Camelot’. A reference from May 1439 does record the demolishing the ‘manor of Camelot’ supporting the idea. Another possible origin is that the 14th century stonemason William Ramsey who constructed Edward III’s round table for Windsor, lived here and named it Camelot out of homage.
In my Holy Wells and healing springs of Middlesex I believed to have located Noddin’s Well as a small boggy hole near the old Middlesex University buildings. However even more mysterious is that others appear to identify it as the ruins of what appear to be a folly building perhaps a bath house. Equally mysterious is the name local Pagan groups have attempted to associate the well with the Celtic God Noden’s who is associated with spring in his mythology. However, equally it could derive from a local land owner. No-one appears to know and it remains an enigmatic site.
Extracted in part from Holy Wells and healing springs of Middlesex
Ask anyone to name one thing about Wantage and they will tell you it was the birth place of King Alfred. When I visited the town in the 1990s I had read of a King Alfred’s Well and naturally was keen to find out more. John Murray’s 1923 A Handbook for Travellers in Berks, Bucks, and Oxfordshire:
“1/4 m. W. of the town, at the Mead, are King Alfred’s Bath and Well ; the latter a basin of clear water, in a pretty dingle, formed by a number of small petrifying springs.”
I was not the first one to visit it of course and it appears to be a popular site for school parties if this account is an example this account in the St Mary’s, Longworth, Parish Magazine, 1910:
“August 1910 On Saturday, June 25, the Sunday School children, to the number of nineteen, were taken by the Rev. T. H. Trott a little outing to Wantage. They were met at the end of their journey by Mr. A. A. Herring, who after kindly giving them some refreshments at the Temperance Hotel, took them round the town to see the principal objects of interest, such as the Parish Church, the Victoria Picture Gallery, King Alfred’s Well and King Alfred’s Bath.”
It had clearly become one of the places to see in the town and doubtless and opportunity to stress the history of King Alfred. The biggest recognition of the site’s history was for the 1000th celebration of his birth. The Freemason’s Quarterly Journal recording:
“THE ALFRED JUBILEE A grand jubilee in honour of the one thousandth anniversary of the birth of King Alfred who according to antiquarian calculation was born in 849 was celebrated at Wantage on the October 1849 The town was decorated for the occasion the shops and business except in the hotels which were crowded generally Many visitors thronged into the place and at one o clock a was formed to King Alfred’s Well about a quarter of a mile the town and supposed to be the site of the ancient stronghold of Saxon kings.”
The Gentleman’s Magazine records that year that a speech on the:
“history and traditions of King Alfred The Rev CL Richmond from America made an eloquent speech to the concourse outside After this a procession was made to King Alfred’s Well about a quarter of a mile from the town and supposed to be at the site of the Anglo Saxon palace.”
Some people still hold firmly to the idea that the palace stood on the ground now occupied by ” The Mead’ (the property of Lord Wantage).
In the 1901 Wantage past and present the author, Agnes Gibbons adds more to the rationale stating that:
“traces of Alfred’s palace are still believed to remain in the High Garden, where there is a close still bearing the name of ” Court Close,” and ” Pallett’s More ” which has been supposed to be a corruption of Palace More.”
However, they continue to claim that:
“Their chief reason for this belief is the fact that there is near the Mead a brick “bath” or ” well ” which has for some time been called King Alfred’s Bath.”
So it appears a cart before the horse situation perhaps!
King Alfred or just Alfred’s?
It would appear that those who had made their pilgrimage to the site were possibly at best mistaken or at most deluded about the history of the site. This is stressed by Gibbons again who claims
“It is, however, extremely doubtful if the bricks which compose the bath are one hundred years old, so that no value can be attached to this argument. “
Wantage Now and Then informs us of the true origin of the well:
“It is said that in reality the ” bath ” was dug out and bricked in, by one Alfred Hazel, a former owner of the Mead (possibly for sheep dipping) and was then called ” Alfred Hazel’s Bath.’”
One can see it this became ” Alfred’s Bath,” and then ” King Alfred’s Bath.” Although how this could be forgotten in less than 100 years seems odd! The author continues:
“The bricks have a suspicious resemblance to those which were made at Challow, early last century, of green sand, many of which are still to be found in the town.”
An odd piece of folklore commonly encountered elsewhere with supposed ghostly appearance on its anniversary, is that the pond nearby which appears to have been the bath with the spring nearby being the well, was a coach. The author continues:
“The pond which is close to the bath, is said to have beneath its muddy surface an old coach, said to be the one formerly used by Mr. Chas. Price (he was Lord Mayor of London in 1802, and his family lived in Wantage) on his journeys to and from the metropolis. It was highly gilded, and minus wheels, and was at one time used as a bathing machine, by men who bathed in the pond. supposed to be the King’s bath or cellar! Both references to Alfred are equally mythical supposed to be the King’s bath or cellar! Both references to Alfred are equally mythical.”
So what was claimed and is still claimed to be his well and bath was Victorian construct possibly and a sheep wash at that. But how could its construction be forgotten about!
When I visited the site it was overgrown and a muddy morass. I could not easily trace any spring but subsequently it has been improved and tidied up to make it easier to visit.
What is interesting that what was formed as dam to clean fleeces and cloth may have also had linked with baptisms, Alfred Hazel was a Baptist. In the late 19th century Lord Wantage VC bought the area and had it landscaped as a fern garden and it may have been around this time that the story of King Alfred became consolidated as perhaps he adopted it as a sort of folly although this would not explain the visit in 1849 unless they didn’t go to this well and there is another King Alfred Well lost in Wantage. Of course there are examples of Lady Wells being repaired by the Lady of the manor! This could be the same the springs are noted a petrifying and so it is possible that they were noted but whether it was Alfred or not is unclear. It is also confusing what was the well and what was the bath – was the bath Alfred Hazels but the springs had been called after King Alfred before that!
In 1921 a descendant, Arthur Thomas Lloyd, presented the area to the town of Wantage and such it has been ever since landscaped and improved more recently. Whatever its history the site with its improved flow is a delightfully refreshing place to visit.
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.
“so called after a fountain at the bottom of the Craigs…sacred in Popish times to the Virgin.”
One of the most ornate holy wells in an urban environment is Glasgow’s Lady Well. Laying check and jowl to a brooding industrial landscape of Tennent’s Brewery (does this mean holy water is in the Special Brew?)
It is noted by in the 1935 Glasgow Evening News ‘Encyclopedia of Glasgow’, Glasgow Evening News that the waters became polluted once the Necropolis was built they were redirected below it where the spring exited from the brae. The earliest mention of the well is mentioned by George Eyre-Todd 1934 History of Glasgow who stated that in 1715 when a John Black was paid a salary of 400 merks yearly to keep the well clean:
“Black was to furnish them with chains, buckets, sheaves, ladles, and other necessary graith, as well as with locks and iron bands. He was ‘to cleanse, muck and keep them clean,’ and to lock and open them in due time, evening and morning. In case of failure he was liable to a penalty of £100 Scots.”
Thus 1715 appears to be the earliest mention. It is likely to be much older, being noted on old maps. It may have provided water for Romans travelling the Carntyne Highway towards Antonine Wall. In medieval times it lay outside the old city wall.
Our Lady or local Lady
Paul Bennett in his 2017 Ancient and Holy Wells of Glasgow states that although it is assumed to be derived from Or Lady the site may be derived from a local benefactor, Lady Lochow, who lived nearby and built a hospital at the old Gorbels in the 14th century. However, there is no evidence bar the possibility it would be associated with the similarly unsubstantiated belief that it was sunk when commoners were denied access to the nearby Priest’s Well.
The well head was built in 1835-6 by the City Council and Merchants House when the area behind was converted into a burial ground; the necropolis. An account recorded in J. R. Walker’s 1882 Holy Wells in Scotland in the Proceedings Society Antiquaries Scotland states:
“THE LADY WELL, Ladywell Street, Glasgow. This well has been restored and rebuilt, as it bears. I have not been able to find any drawing showing the original structure. I cannot possibly imagine that the present building bears any resemblance to the former, it being now strictly classic in design and detail. The cross and urn are of cast metal. “Lady Love” or “Lady Well,” so called after a fountain at the bottom of the Craigs (now included in the Necropolis), sacred in Popish times to the Virgin.”
The structure originally was an open round artesian well and was developed into a classical style with the date being carved upon its lintel stone. The site remains a source of water until the 1860s when fresh water was the piped from Loch Katrine rather than another legend which claims it was closed up being a source of plague. There was later restoration in 1875, probably when the well head was capped, and then again in 1983 by the Tennent Caledonian Breweries beside which it incongruously lays. The well itself is more of an ornate folly head with its tureen like basin unlike any holy well I have ever seen nestled in its classical portico. It certainly fits into the grandeur of the necropolis above but as a holy well it is perhaps a little lacking in romance; however it is better off preserved than completely lost! It must mean something to a number of people for the basin and the base are littered with coins which surprisingly considering they are not in water have not been taken!
This month theoretically we can start exploring holy wells again (within guidelines of course)…so hopefully for the last time I present England as an armchair journey.
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!