The Holy and Ancient Wells and Springs of Gloucester – Our Lady’s Well, Hempsted
Our Lady’s Well (SO 814 173) is certainly one of most interesting and picturesquely placed Holy well in Gloucestershire and one of the best near the city of Gloucester, overlooking as it does over the Severn valley. The spring itself issuing from the sand/bunter pebble stratum, probably of glacial origin, and fills the well house overflowing to fed a large stone trough replacing the previous structure.
Traditionally it is believed that the well was built by the Canons of St Mary’s Priory, of Llanthony in the 14th Century ( the ruins of which are presently being restored and can be visited ). However, another tradition asserts that the dedication of this well is that of St Anne, rather than St Mary which we shall explore later. The water of the well was associated with medicinal virtues and cured any ailment bathed within its waters. Indeed as Walters notes it may well have been a place of pilgrimage. Another tradition is that it is referred to as Lady’s Wash house being were the ancient ladies washed!!
An engraving of Our Lady’s Well is given by Maclean 1888–9 who describes it as
“a small cell or chapel erected over a well… The plan is nearly a square of 7 feet, on a wider basement. The east and west ends are gabled; in the latter is an ogee door, and a narrow ogee window of one light. On the east end is some sculpture, which seems to have been a rood. The covered roof is of stone, and the ridge is finished with a rib. The whole is of good ashlar masonry. This little building stands on the side of rather an abrupt slope, overlooking the valley of the Severn. A fine thorn tree which overhangs it adds much to its picturesque beauty.”
The well-house is probably of early fourteenth-century date and made of oolite limestone. The pitched roof, is comprised of large slabs of this stone, of which rebates have been cut to ensure overlap and keep watertight. The north and south sides are plain, however the of the east side are the worn remains of a sculptured carving. Remains of steps are visible on the north and south sides of the structure.
In Maclean’s time this was built in, but afterwards it was opened, being blocked for a time by an iron door
A curious discoverer
Roy Palmer in his 1994 Folklore of Gloucestershire describes a legend that the Virgin herself discovered the spring. On her way to visit Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, her boat was washed up near here by the Severn Bore and climbing the steep slope from the Severn and found the spring. However he is the first to record this most curious of legends!
Who is the carving?
The sculpture on the east side has been variously interpreted. The virgin addressed by kneeling figures was Ashworth (1890) xxx suggestion. Bazeley and Richardson (1921–3) xxx :
“the central figure is a woman, probably St. Anne, standing between her daughter St Mary and an angel or perhaps her husband Joachim.”
They say that ‘Mr Hurry of Hempsted Court mentioned a tradition of two children being drowned in this well while bathing’, and the carvings may have been popularly supposed to commemorate this. It has also been suggested that the site was of pre-christian importance and was derived from Wan, the pagan god of fire, later becoming St Ann although the lateness of her cult, which is 14th century suggests not.
Holy Well or Wash House?
The well lay on land belonging to Llanthony Priory as a water supply and the well was thus a conduit. Its alternative name was called Our Lady’s Washhouse and Ashworth (1890) notes that many who washed in the waters were relieved of their infirmities and that this was the reason it was called Lady Well or Lady’s Wash House. Another notes that it was where as Walters (1923) notes:
“it was a place where ancient ladies washed”
They would find it difficult to wash from now as it has been dry. However, the well is still easily found by taking the road to Hempstead before Gloucester and after the roundabout. Take this road and then turn into the road of the church. Park here enter the graveyard and follow to the other end where there is a gate. Enter this follow the path between the hedges and into the field and the well will be quite self-evident.http://www.megalithic.co.uk/a558/a312/gallery/England/Gloucestershire/lady_well_hempsted.jpg
A Well for December – St Anthony’s Well Cinderford
Deep in the woods around Cinderford is one of England’s most mysterious sacred springs. The most famed of a number of ancient and sacred springs in the Forest of Dean. This is St. Anthony’s Well. Its remote location befits this hermit saint and one could quite image in some dark and distant time a hermit eking out an existence beside this large spring. So powerful is the spring in fact that the easiest way to find it is to follow the stream back to its source. When one does one is greeted by a substantial structure. Richardson (1930) in his work cataloguing the water supply of the county notes that it flowed from:
“ the foot of a steep bank into a stone-slab-covered dip. From the dip it is piped into a basin measuring approximately 11 ft. 6 in. by 8 ft. by 5 ft., in which there is usually about 3 ft of water.”
Fortunately this description stands today.
A healing spring
The spring was famous for curing skin complaints. Rudder (1779) in his New History of Gloucestershire states that:
“Bathing in this water is an infallible cure for the itch, and other cutaneous disorders; and a gentleman of Little Dean assured me, that his dogs were cured of the mange after being thrown into it two or three times. The water is extremely cold.”
MacLean (1881–2) in Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeology Society Transactions states that it cured leprosy and Palmer (1994) rheumatism. There was a ritual associated with the power of this water. Nicholls (1858) in The Forest of Dean: An Historical and Descriptive Account adds that:
“its peculiar efficacy being combined with the rising of the sun, the month of May, and the visits to it being repeated nine times in succession.”
Palmer (1994) in his Folklore of Gloucestershire suggested that:
“twelve visits were needed, with one step taken on the first, two on the second, and so on.”
Many authors agree that its waters are very cold. I remember my visit to the site in the 1990s with my father. He had been suffering with skin problems and upon hearing upon its properties tried the cure….he dipped his feet in the water, complained about its severe cold temperature, but then went around nine times. He was not cured, not because it was summer not May but because his skin complaint was due to diabetes!
Another claim for its waters was that it cured eye complaints as well. Certainly the water is very clear and pure. In the late 1980s the local church on Ascension Day visited the well and dressed it, although it is unclear whether this was of a Derbyshire form. The well was dressed in the 00s by local pagans which had mixed responses.
It is likely that the well was associated with Flaxley Abbey founded in 1148, but there is no evidence for this association. Indeed the first reference appears to be as St. Anthonyes Well in 1669 and is marked on the 1881 OS map. Beyond this no firm history is known other than that recorded in topographical works above. Yet its old mossy stone work and clear water speak volumes of its great age. St Anthony’s feast day was in December I am sure the water than is colder than ever!
St Kenelm’s Well at Winchcombe
‘and immediately a spring burst forth under a rock, which they lifted up, and the whole company drank healthfully before moving on. The spring runs into the river to this day’.
High above the picturesque village of Winchcombe is a substantial conduit house. This conduit house with its heavy stone pitched rood of local stone and substantial door contains a four foot wide, two foot deep well fed by a spring associated with most of the country’s most interesting saint. In a text called Vita Sancti Kenelmi, written it is believed by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, in the 11th century the story of the saint is told. It relates that King Kenulf, King of Mercia and founder of Wincombe Abbey (in 789 A.D) had an heir Kenelm. His half sister Quenride was jealous of her brother and being ambitious murdered him and had his body hidden in Clent, North Worcestershire ( and now on the outskirts of the West Midlands Metropolitan area ). His death was seen as a great scandal and soon the dead revealed itself and when the body was found, and a white dove sent the message to the Pope:
“In Clent in cowback Kenelm King’s bairn lieth under a thorn bereft of his head.”
The Clent monks removed this body, a miraculous spring arising in the process, and carried it to Winchombe. Where the funeral cortège rested miraculous springs arose. Of these springs, only the two remain, that at Clent and the one under discussion here, the last resting place. The monks of Wincombe claimed this body and established a pilgrimage place, the spring being part of this pilgrimage. The Annals of Wincombe, related in the South East Legendary c1280, translated below reads:
“These men towards Winchombe the Holy body bear,
Before they could it thither bring, very weary they were,
So they came to a wood a little east of the town,
And rested, though they were so near, upon a high down,
Athirst they were for weariness, so sore there was no end,
For St Kenelm’s love they bade our Lord some drink send,
A cold well and clear, there sprung from the down,
That still is there, clear and cold, a mile from the town,
Well fair, it is now covered with stone as is right,
And I counsel each man thereof to drink, that cometh there truly,
The Monks, since, of Winchombe have built there beside,
A fair Chapel of St Kenelm, that man seek wide.”
In Caxton’s 15th century Golden Legend it states:
‘for heat and labour they were nigh dead for thirst, and anon they prayed to God, and to this holy saint to be their comfort. And then the abbot pight his cross into the earth, and forthwith sprang up there a fair well, whereof they drank and refreshed them much’.
The site, as St Kenwolphs Well, first appears on the map in 1777 on Taylor’s Gloucestershire map but Walters (1928) in his work on Ancient springs of Gloucestershire, states that the well house or conduit house was enclosed by Lord Chandos (of Sudeley Castle in the valley below) in the reign of Elizabeth I dating from around 1572. It is possible that the conduit house replaced a previous well house and it is thought to have been a chapel nearby which was still standing in 1830 when it was either demolished or converted into a cottage. The later seems possible as a Perpendicular window is to be found in the rear of a Victorian cottage nearby but I did not find it.
To return to the conduit house, a figure of the saint was placed over the door, crowned and seated, with sword and sceptre. It bears the date 819 A.D. and the name St Kenelmus, but was erected in 1887. The inscriptions within these walls are as follows :
East wall :
“THIS WELL DATING FROM THE ANGLO-SAXON TIMES, ANNO DOMINI 819, MARKS THE SPOT WHERE THE BODY OF KENELM, ‘ KING AND MARTYR ‘ RESTED ON THE WAY TO INTERMENT IN THE ABBEY OF WINCHOMBE.
A CHURCH WAS ERECTED IN THE IMMEDIATE VICINITY FOR PILGRIMS ATTRACTED HITHER BY THE WONDERFUL POWERS OF THE WATERS. ALL THAT NOW REMAINS OF THIS EDIFICE ( DEMOLISHED ANNO DOMINI 1830 ) IS A WINDOW INSERTED IN THE ADJOINING FARM HOUSE.
IN THE REIGN OF QUEEN ELIZABETH LORD CHANDOS OF SUDELY ENSHRINED THE HOLY WELL BY ERECTION OF THIS CONDUIT HOUSE, PROBABLY TO COMEMORATE ONE OF THAT QUEEN’S VISIT TO THE CASTLE.
IN THIS JUBILEE YEAR OF THE REIGN OF QUEEN VICTORIA, JUNE 20TH, ANNO DOMINI 1887, THE SCULPTURE-FIGURE OF ST KENELM WAS ADDED EXTERNALLY AND THESE THREE LEGENDARY TABLETS PLACED THEREON.
“OH TRAVELLER, STAY THY WEARY FEET,
DRINK OF THIS WATER, PURE AND SWEET,
IT FLOWS FOR RICH AND POOR THE SAME,
THEN GO THY WAY, REMEMBERING STILL,
THE WAYSIDE WELL BENEATH THE HILL,
THE CUP OF WATER IN HIS NAME.”
“IN LOVING MEMORY OF THE THREE BROTHERS JOHN, WILLIAM AND THE REVD. BENJAMIN DENT, AND OF THEIR NEPHEW, JOHN COUCHIER DENT, WATER FROM THIS ABUNDANT AND EVER FLOWING STREAM WAS CONVEYED AS A FREE GIFT TO THE INHABITANTS OF WINCHOMBE BY EMMA, WIDOW OF THE ABOVE JOHN COUCHIER DENT. JUNE 20TH, 1887”
“LET THEY FOUNTAIN BE DISPERSED ABROAD,
AND RIVERS OF WATERS IN THE STREETS. ” PROV. V. 16”
On a pleasant summer’s day it makes a delightful goal to the pilgrim, although sadly the well itself is now inaccessible…it is currently locked.