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.
Bedfordshire is a bit of forgotten county when it comes to research into holy wells but a digging into a range of resources coupled with field work indicates that the county does have a number of interesting sites. St Chad’s Well at Pertenhall is one such site. I was first made aware of the site reading Haunted Britain by Anthony Hippisley Coxe being one of only two holy wells he mentions in the county. It is also worth noting that despite an inclusion in Charles Hope’s 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells it has been largely forgotten. The author records:
“The other day, in passing through Pertenhall, I noticed the Chadwell Spring, at Chadwell End, to be a big one. At one time it was proposed to have a drain to carry the water to Kimbolton, a distance of seven miles. Within the last few years much water from this spring has been bottled, and used for sore eyes. The parish church is dedicated to St. Peter, and formerly Pertenhall was Saint Peter’s Hall, and there were seven churches altogether in the parish once on a time, so my informant, an old inhabitant I chanced upon, asserted.–A. C. G. Cameron, H.M. Geological Survey. March 14, 1891.”
When J. Steele Elliott compiled Bygone water supplies in 1933 he wrote:
“The water was referred to in 1806 for its ferruginous valves…Yields a considerable flow..”
By the time that Hippisley Coxe in his 1973’s Haunted Britain arrived he recorded another name:
“At Chadwell End, the southern part of the village, is Holy Spring (originally St Chad’s Well)
“where only eighty years ago water was bottled and used for sore eyes. The spring lies off Chadwell Farm, 200 yards to the west, through the farmyard, over a wooden bridge Miss Banks, the farmers’ daughter may not only give you permission to visit it, but also show the way. No building remains.”
The Bedfordshire County Council stated that:
“It is well documented that during the last century it was thought that the water in this well had curative properties, especially for eyesight problems, and people came from miles around hoping to cure their ailments.”
It is St Chad’s Well or Chadwell?
There is a distinction. There are a large number of wells named Chadwell particularly in the eastern part of the country.
Like quite a number of so called Chad Wells it is more likely to be derived from the Old English ceald meaning ‘cold’ and indeed it was called Chawdwell in 1607 according to Allen Mawer and F. M. Stenton’s 1926 The Place-Names of Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire. On this basis it appears not and indeed Steele Elliott notes that the name Cadwell is recorded in 1712-14.
Bedfordshire was part of Mercia where Chad lived but there is no evidence his visited this area of Bedfordshire. Furthermore, although the manor once belonged to the Knights Templar there is no evidence that the group either utilised the well or named it. However, Elliott does that there is a record of a Nun’s Well in the same parish but he does not give a location so perhaps this site and the Nun’s well are the same? Is Anthony D Hippisley Coxe naming of the site Holy Spring a clue?
The site today
A glance of the current O/S map shows in blue writing Chadwell spring in an indistinct location at the confluence of footpaths. Elliott shows a photo (see below) of the site which appears to show a spring flowing at some speed into a circular possibly stone lined basin.
Before decide to explore its current state my attention was drawn to the Bedfordshire County Council (2002) notes that:
“The well is still there today but in a poor state of repair, although the Parish Council are hoping to undertake restoration work in the near future.”
Bedfordshire 2002 – Issue 19, June 2002
Therefore I was expecting to see some sort of structure in line with Elliot perhaps. However the site is difficult to line up with his photo. It is possible that the site has been tanked although one can hear the sound of water flowing into a small pool of clear water but one could note easily reach this area. Not exactly derelict and just about observable from the footpath although the spring itself probably lies off of it. Clearly a spring of considerable importance but whether St Chad was there it seems very unlikely!
This year we are focusing on the often controversial subject of rag or clootie wells. The topic has already been explored on this blog a while back but with new research it is worth exploring again. So this year either view detailed history/folklore discussion or photo archive we shall be exploring the topic again. To start rather than a detailed History/folklore blog post it would be good to look at the range of clooties or rags left at the country’s most famous example with my ideas of why and I hope it might encourage discussion.
Over Beltane 2017 I had the privilege to spend much of the day at this famed holy well. My aim was two fold:
a – to photo as many as possible of the clooties and other offerings at the well as a record
b – to hopefully encounter visitors attaching clooties
Below is a photo archive cataloguing some of the diverse form of offerings at the well. For the background to this site please see the earlier post. I shall give my recollections of b in a later post with another on the site’s history
I have tried to categorise each item and give some rationale…it’s a controversial subject and now the site has been cleared recently do doubtless many of these have gone, which is not necessarily a bad thing in many cases!
Underwear – were these spare or did they completely undress? Are they associated with problems with these parts of the body? There is the famous bra fence in Australia associated with cures of cancer is this the same or are they ex votos as thanks?
Shoes – Similarly for foot problems or thanks for travelling safely…some new shoes as well
Teddies and dolls – personal items of a sick child perhaps?
Flags! – Hope for Nationalism and a record for overseas visitors
Football scarfs – wishing the team good luck!
Tabards – asking for solving work problems or to give protection for workers!
Personal messages – hope, thanks and memories of friendship renewed
Bags – good luck for school
Plaster casts – speak for themselves
Odd eggs! – Cowabunga! Fertility perhaps or just an attempt at egg rolling!?
This one’s been here for a while!
And there are many many more…perhaps enough for another blog post at the end!
In search of the healing and ancient wells and springs of Folkestone part two – Foord’s chalybeate spring
In this second post on the town’s noted water supplies we turn to its chalybeate spring. Like many of the towns, Folkestone made a bid to develop into a spa town. In the town a Chalybeate Spring is noted by Seymour in his 1776 Survey of Kent:
“At a place called Foord, a quarter of a mile distant west from Folkestone, is a fine salubrious spring of water, which has all the virtue and efficacy of the chalybeate being impregnated with iron in a degree equal to the Tunbridge Water. It has been proved with success by Dr Gill, operates by urine and perspiration, and is of infinite service in cold chronic distemper, weakness, and bad digestions.”
He describes it as:
“CHALYBEATE SPRING which although uninviting in appearance from its ferruginous aspect is much resorted to in cases of stomach affection and nervous debility after a long illness The component parts of this water are Carbonic Muriatic and Sulphuric Acids Soda Lime Magnesia and Iron which occur in the following order Carbonate of Soda, Carbonate of lime, Muriate of Soda Carbonate of Soda Carbonate of Lime, Muriate of Soda, Muriate of Lime, Sulphate of Soda, Carbonate of Iron The water is principally alkaline from Carbonate of Soda the quantity of Muriate is small The charge for drinking it is very moderate.”
In L. Fussel’s 1818 Journey round the Coast of Kent:
“such an accidental circumstance that which first brought Tunbridge wells into repute is only wanting to give celebrity to the chalybeate water at Foord, and make the fortunes of Mr Holmes, a very civil, attentive and intelligent master of the Red Cow near the spot.”
As noted thus in 1815, the said Red Cow landlord, William Holmes, obtained a license to bottle and sell its waters. Seymour (1776) suggests that the site could be made a valuable spa, suggesting suitable accommodation at a Mr. James Bateman’s White Hart Inn.. Yet, whether he was basing his views on any tradition. It was said that the best time to drink the water would be in the morning, taking a further two or three glasses through the day. It was often mixed with milk or even brandy to make it more palatable!
Amongst the diseases Foord’s water could cure were:
“diarrhoea, gout, rheumatism, flatulence, gout, rheumatism, scurvy, blood fluxes, dysentery, bleeding of piles, lowness of spirits, weakness of the nerves, want of appetite, indigestion, habitual colic, vomiting, jaundice, dropsy, nephritic disorders, asthma and scorbutick cases”.
By 1850 a mock castle had been built as a pump room by Mr J G Breach of Pavilion Hotel, but the lack of baths, and entertainers and the rise of sea bathing lead to its demise! Sadly he did not make his fortune, moved on, but the Silver Spring Mineral Water Company, did move to Foord Road in the 1890’s., remembered by a plaque over what was Crown European Upholstery, now closed itself. Indeed, when Dr Augustus Granville was researching for his 1841 The Spas of England and Principle Sea Bathing places he missed it
The spring has long gone, a row called Chalybeate row being built on the site, until 2012 a pub named after the Mock Castle survived to remember Folkestone’s attempt to become a spa town’ but this too has gone!
As a prelude to next year’s theme on votive offerings at holy and healing wells with a special focus on rag wells, for this abecedary entry W I have picked Wales and want to focus on rag wells in the country as an early prelude to my theme next year which is on rag or more often called cloottie wells.
The earliest confirmed reference is an English one of 1600 and evidence from Wales of their existence comes much later as nearly 300 years after the first accounts. What are we to make of this?
An account by Professor Rhys in Folklore for September, 1892 is the easiest reference and he is given the following information, said to be ‘lately sent to him by a friend, about a Glamorganshire holy well situated between Coychurch and Bridgeendd’ he notes.:—
“people suffering from any malady to dip a rag in the water, and bathe the affected part. The rag is then placed on a tree close to the well. When I passed it, about three years ago, there were hundreds of these shreds covering the tree, and some had evidently been placed there very recently.”
He was further informed that :
“People suffering from rheumatism. They bathe the part affected with water, and afterwards tie a piece of rag to the tree which overhangs the well. The rag is not put in the water at all, but is only put on the tree for luck. It is a stunted but very old tree, and is simply covered with rags.”
An interesting variant of the custom is recorded at Ffynnon Eilian (St. Elian’s Well), near Abergele in Denbighshire. Here Professor Rhys was informed by Mrs. Evans, the late wife of Canon Silvan Evans, who states that:
“some bushes near the well had once been covered with bits of rag left by those who frequented it. The rags used to be tied to the bushes by means of wool-not woollen yarn, but wool in its natural state. Corks with pins stuck in them were floating in the well when Mrs. Evans visited it, though the rags had apparently disappeared from the bushes.”
This may have been to do with the unfavourable nature of the well which was renowned as a cursing well. Recently restored it rags have yet to re-appear there!
Finally he records Ffynnon Cefn Lleithfan, or Well of the Lleithfan Ridge, on the eastern slope of Mynydd y Rhiw, in the parish of Bryncroes, in the west of Caernarvonshire, here:
“The wart is to be bathed at the well with a rag or clout, which has grease on it. The clout must then be carefully concealed beneath the stone at the mouth of the well.”
Which is yet again another variant possibly to do with the paucity of trees in the area
In an article in the Cardiff Naturalists Society (1935) by Aileen Fox, entitled “A Rag Well near Llancarfan” the spring called the Inflammation Spring she states that:
“When I first visited the spring in August, 1935, 3 old rags – pieces of dish cloth and calico – and a piece of brown wool were tied on overhanging branches by the source.”
And records that:
“The treatment described by Mrs Williams consisted in using the water for drinking to the exclusion of all other fluids, in applying mud from the source as a plaster on the affected parts, and in tying a rag, preferably from the underclothing, by the well.”
Distribution of the rag wells in the county is spread out with a small cluster in the south. Research and survey work indicates that there are eight traditional sites of which only three have a continued tradition, although it is difficult to describe or define the presence of rags there as continued or revived tradition without further research. Add to this only three sites which have no tradition but have no become rag wells. This latter category itself is a puzzle to define.
A recent visit to the atmospheric St. Pedr’s Well at Caswell Bay on the Gower did reveal rags and objects hanging from trees. However, the more traditional appearing was St. Teilo’s Well, Llandilo in Pembrokeshire where trees beside the pool filled by the spring were adorned with white and red fabrics of cloth and as such perhaps appears closer to the tradition than other sites such as St Anne’s Well, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, where a tree is adorned with a multitude of objects when it is not actively cleared up by local people. Why rags and objects should appear at St Tegla’s Well, Llandega, Denbighshire, or the Holy Well, Pileth, Powys or Patrishow’s holy well, Llanlawer is unclear. As sites which have received publicity in the earth mysteries and pagan press these rank pretty high. However, it is interesting to note that they are all close to the English border too. The origins of the custom in Wales similarly is difficult to determine. The widespread nature of the custom and it variant usage suggests possibly a wider distribution and the sites remaining are bar the remnants or that it arose individually in a number of places.
Spurting out sometimes 2 metres into the air, in the Semuliki National Park can be found the remarkable Sempaya Hot Springs. Boiling at up to 103 degrees Celsius; the indigenous Bamaga clan have a legend to explain it.
The male and female springs
The Bamaga clan, state that a hot spring arose after the tribe’s womenfolk saw a hairy man dressed in bark holding a spear with his dog moving in a zig zag fashion, whist collecting wood. Quickly returning to the men, the men then decided invite him to their village and find him a wife called Nyansimbi. However, the man who became known as Biteete disappeared once hunting and after searching they came to the hot spring where they found him and found no traces of both the man nor dog at the site, only their spear. They cried out Bilente meaning ‘Oh he has gone’ and thus the spring was so named. On returning to the village they told his wife and who also ran into the forest and was never seen again. When they looked for her they found at another hot spring her clothes. As a result they named the springs Male and Female, giving them the name Bilente and Nyansimbi respectively.
They believe the springs to be where their ancestors reside, Consequently, over the generations, the Bamaga tribe would perform rituals over the springs yearly, throwing in coins and making animal sacrifices. At Nyansimbi pregnant women would visit and pray for a safe pregnancy and delivery whilst other women visit to improve their fertility. Whilst others visit the waters believing the water, which are rich in salts, can cure skin problems. These extremely hot waters still continue to spurt out of the water producing a remarkable spectacle for all he see it.
In this post I thought I’d examine some little known holy and healing springs from East Kent extracted from the book Holy wells and healing springs of Kent
This parish is associated with the Holy Maid of Kent, Elizabeth Barton, whose proneness to fantastic illusions, attracted great numbers of followers, angered by Henry VIII’s split from Rome. Frightened of any connection with Rome, or power she may hold over the peasant folk, she and her collaborators, local monks, were hung at the Tyburn in London. Neame (1971) notes that there was another reputed ‘holy well’ at Goldwell manor apparently associated with the Holy Maid, called the Golden Well (TR 066 371). This was never known to fail, and was still frequented in the 1930s. It lay in the north-east corner of the house and was reached via steps in the cellar, being surrounded by a low brick coping. Sadly it has now blocked up and lost.
The remains of the Chapel of Our Lady (TR 090 353) judging from early engravings, has degraded considerably over the centuries, and sadly all that now remains are three walls with traces of Romanesque archways. A large water cress covered pool, lies beside this. This was the pool used by the pilgrims visiting the Chapel. However, below this is a spoon shaped stone lined chamber, which appears to be a well and may have been a holy well. Although much of it is filled in, and dry, one can envision, a series of steps flowing down to the stone-lined circular pool. It would appear to be unrecorded by other authorities. Perhaps an excavation can be employed to discover its origin.
Charles Igglesden (1900-46) in his Saunters through Kent notes a ‘Pilgrim’s Well’ (TR 082 354):
“Here is a bridle path from Smeeth Station to Lympne Road, called Pilgrim’s Way, from the fact that there is a well at the Lympne end.”
This dubious site, however, appears to have been lost.
Here is an ancient well, called Queen Anne’s Well (TQ 958 291), because its waters it is said were drunk by a thirsty Queen Anne, asking for refreshment at the house. Consequently, the house was named ‘The Queen’s Arms’ to commemorate the event. Considering the Queen’s liking for spas, the water may have been a mineral water. Perhaps, although one naturally associates the well with the Stuart monarch, she may have been the wife of James II, Anne Hyde or even further back James I, Anne of Denmark. The well lies in the cellar of a private house of The Queen’s Arms, the one nearest the church. I was informed by the owner that its water flows from the wall behind and then flows via a series of drains to and from the well. Niches facing the well indicate a great antiquity, and emphasise that the house may be built on an old chapel or even priory, as it appears medieval in period, which was the view of the owner. Considering the antiquity of the surroundings, its name may derive from St. Anne. Little is known of its history, it may have been a main ancient water source.
To the east of St. Augustine’s Priory at the edge of a field is a site called the Holy Well (TR 044 356). However, I have been unable to discover any reasons for the dedication; it may not be a particular old dedication although it is likely to be the water supply of the priory. It is a simple spring without any sign of structure.
Igglesden (1901-1946) records a tradition of a curative spring, called The Golden Well (TQ 969 425) which he considers a feeder of the Medway, arising beneath the private cellar of a house. He notes that the house:
“Takes its name from a golden well that lies under the cellar and there used to be a legend the effect that the water possessed curative powers over the certain diseases.”
It arises at the base of the rag stone cellar wall, into a circular stone lined well shaft. This although appearing to be only a foot or so deep, was once deeper, but filled when the present house was erected over the cellar. Recent analysis shows it was not potable, yet it is remarkable clear. Interestingly, the owner, Mr. Peter Green, told me of a tradition of a tunnel which lead from the cellar to the edge of Romney Marsh, or rather the sea. He thought he came across the tunnel whilst building a wall.
However, the origin of the well is not clear cut. Wallenberg (1934) in his Place names of Kent, conversely, believes that the Manor’s name derives from the Goldwell family. The explanations are not exclusive. The family may have obtained the name from being guardians of the well. Goldwell may derive from golden votive offerings given to the spring, or the discovery of a hidden hoard from the Reformation, a common myth embroiled around such sites.
Sweden boasts a number of sacred springs or källa. Many of these are what are called in English sacrifice springs where objects of wealth of deposited. One of the commonest dedications is to St Olof and so we shall explore two of these first.
Who was Sankt Olof ?
Born in 995 in Norway, Olav, Olov or Olof II Haraldsson as the King of Norway, Christianised the country and many miracles were associated with him after his death in 1015. That he was elevated to saints was due to the miracles that were said to have happened after his death. The saint fame spread throughout the Nordic countries and St. Olof’s day, the July 29 is celebrated widely. In the folklore, Olav appears as a patron saint against the pagan evil powers.
St Olof’s well Vasterlanda
The spring may have been a pre-Christian site of sacrifice with the saint’s name being applied to Christianise it in the 1100s. Its water was considered good for eyes being recorded as such in 1693 to cure eye diseases.
The site was a popular pilgrimage site with people coming on the saint’s day, although the church was uncomfortable with the mix of sacredness and drinking. People came to leave money at the spring and poorer people left meat meaning that the spring was often covered with a layer of fat
Famous scientist Carl Linnaeus writes in his Skåne journey:
“The most beautiful party is St. Olof’s day, when the people here storm to a great extent from distant places to interrogate the sermon and to sacrifice.”
St Olof’s Spring, Hallaröd
The information at the site neatly describes it. Its states:
“In the Middle Ages, about 1050-1500 AD, the source cult received a boost and many and special rites were created through the direct involvement of the Catholic Church. After the Reformation, in 1536, the saint’s cult was considered superstitious and primitive. The church was now trying to eradicate it in various ways, but the interest in the sources lived partly, sometimes until the end of the 19th century. It mainly concerned the custom of sacrificing money and drinking and washing in the health-care source water. At the end of the 17th century, the art of healing also began to be interested in health sources and surpluses. The biggest holiday day was of course the day of the holidays on July 29.One offered money or perhaps food and asked for health, prosperity and about the daily bread. Olof also kept beasts, snakes and trolls away from the creature and he protected and blessed the annual growth. The journey to Hallaröd’s sacrificial source was usually concluded with a visit to the market which was held near the church. By the middle of the 18th century, the market was moved to Hörby.”
The Hammarby Kalla
Considered to have considerable healing powers was this source just northwest of the church at Lake Fysingen in Uppland . To secure a cure one would drink seven sips on a triple evening , which is seven days after the Pentecost .Hence the spring was called a triple well. The site was restored in 2011 and re-blessed on Sunday 4th September. People can be baptised and married at the well in the summer.
At the Fagertofta burial ground there is a site where coins were left at Midsummer Spring . It is two meters in diameter and 3 decimeters deep and surrounded by a wooden fence. According to the saying, you drank or washed here during the midsummer night to stay healthy. This is one of the source of sacrifice or Osterkalla were objects of value such as coins would be added. These were often associated with midsummer and youths.
This sacrifice spring was one of the most famed. As the source flowed north it was thought to make the water more magical and healthy and on certain times it had extra healing powers. In “Witchcraft, disbelief and house cures in Danderyd and Lidingö at the year 1783” noted:
A source flowing to the north has wholehearted waters, than the one that flows to other directions […] Near Landsnora Qvarn is such a source, running out of the halle mountain, from there water is collected for the cure of numerous diseases, especially for sick eyes.
The ancient small Sussex town of Winchelsea possibly has more named well and springs than a town twice as large. Sadly most of the wells have been lost, some no more than boggy holes but at least one is still preserved and celebrated.
A map see here shows the extent of the springs available in the medieval period. Extant details are unclear but they were important as boundaries as the following recalls:
“bounds of the Liberty of Winchelsea as they were taken and enrolled the 7th day of May in the fourth year of the reign of Edward the Third AD 1330 were as under First go from the Cross without Newgate north along by the Town Ditch and so through the midst of Lewes Marsh to a ditch of the Manor of Icklesham leading to St Leonard’s Fleet till you come right against a well in Pook Lane called Vale Well and so east up by a little lane lying between Crooked Acre and Bell Morrice to the King’s High street and then north east through the lands of Thomas Alard to the street end and so to the ring of Stone Mill and so downe to Pipewell Cawsey’s end and so by the street at the right hand leading to the north and to Grind pepper Well 3 and then as the old Ferryway leadeth to the Channell and so over the Channell to a fleet called White Fleet and as the water leadith by the Hopad Marsh into Kettle Fleet and so taking in the whole roads of the Puddle and the Cambre along upon the Sea Coast where the Hermitage did stand until a man can see Beachy Head neare Bourne and from thence through the sea to a wall called Court Wall and so west to the Cross without Newgate aforesaid.”
An account of the wells are described in William Durrant Cooper’s 1850 History of Winchelsea:
“Water, so scarce at Rye, was amply supplied to this town from six open wells:——viz., PIPE WELL, situate near the Ferry, close by the entrance of the town by the former Rye road: ST. KATHERINE’s WELL, situate half way up the hill leading from Rye, and below Cook’s Green, the water of which is slightly chalybeate: the STRAND WELL, on the hanging of the hill (above the former tan yard) destroyed a few years since by the falling in of the cliff: the FRIAR’S WELL, now enclosed, situated in a ﬁeld recently called the Peartree or Wellﬁeld, to the east of the Gray Friars ; the NEW WELL on the outside of New Gate; and the VALE WELL, now called ST. LEONARD’S WELL, at the north-west of the town, under the old castle,—of whose waters the popular belief yet remains, that when once drunken the drinker never leaves Winchelsea, that is, that wherever he roams his heart is still there; each drinker realising Goldsmith’s lines,
In all my wand’rings round this world of care,
I still had hopes, my strong vexations past,
Here to return—and die at home at last.”
Of these wells the aforementioned Strand Well was lost when the cliff collapsed in 1840s. The Pipe well which gives its name to one of the medieval gates in the town appears also to have vanished but it may remain lost in undergrowth on the steep cliff face.
The most interesting is the Vale Well which was surrounded by land by Poklande, from O.E pwca for ‘goblin’ and by the time of the above survey Pook Lane. Often springs were associated with such elementals and as such may be remembrances of pre-Christian deities. Found at the north end of town, under the old castle, in the meadows underneath the north-western hillside just beyond the mound of the windmill is St Leonard’s Well just about hanging on. According to Walcott (1857):
‘of St Leonard’s Well at Winchelsea the good folks say that he who drinks will never rest till he returns to slake his thirst in its waters’.
Ford in Return to Yesterday in 1931
“In the face of the cliff that Winchelsea turns to Rye there is a spring forming a dip – St. Leonard’s Well or the Wishing Well. The saying is that once you have drunk of those dark waters you will never rest til you drink again. I have seen – indeed I have introduced them to it – Henry James, Stephen Crane and W. H. Hudson drink there from the hollows of their hands. So did Conrad. They are all dead now.”
There was a church of Iham just outside Winchelsea, dedicated to St Leonard; it fell into decay after 1484 and it is possible that the spring takes its name from the church rather than the saint directly. It was described in 1950s as:
‘fenced with barbed wire and noisome water almost covered by watercress and overhanging brambled’
It is now an indistinct boggy hole a few stones lie around and depending on the weather some flowing water.
Similarly, the Friar’s Well was once enclosed, being in a field called Peartree or Wellfield, to east of Greyfriars. It is a spring head of clear water arising from a small hole, surrounded by remains of metal sheeting and deposits of beach stones, suggesting a possible structure.
The oldest recorded well was Grindpepper Well or the Black Friar’s Well. This maybe the same as St. Katherine’s Well as marked on the map Currently, it is called Queen Elizabeth’s Well and it is the best known and best preserved, being found on Spring steps.. It is located on the hillside, a dry well enclosed in red brick arch with grating at front. Peering inside one can see about of foot of water. Its alternative name is presumably pre-Reformation dedication but why is it named after this saint? The church is St Thomas the Martyr. Perhaps it was originally to St Katherine.
Interestingly, the name survived into the 1760s as it is noted on a map of Winchelsea by Charles Stephens. Records show that it was taken by the Corporation and it allowed its waters to be piped to a Mr. Joseph David in 1877. However, where did the Royal dedication come from? have mentioned in my account of Queen Elizabeth’s Well in Rye that such springs were developed as part of a cult. But it only appears for the first time in 1900 when the St Leonard’s and Hastings Natural History society visited the town and visited the well, then it appears immortalised on a postcard and hence named ever since. The best of the town’s ancient waters and perhaps now the most mysterious!
Overlooking the Bristol channel on a hill in Watchet is a holy well associated directly with the struggle between paganism and Christianity. A spring which arose at the site of his brutal martyrdom. Now a delightfully peaceful oasis and a favourite site
Who was St. Decumen?
Born of noble Celtic parents at Rhoscrowther in Pembrokeshire. Wishing to live a hermit life he travelled across the Bristol channel on his raft made of a cloak with a cow for a companion. There he became a hermit teaching the local people Christianity and healing people.
St Decumen’s martyrdom.
The Life of St Decuman in the Nova Legenda Anglie, records how in AD 706, his missionary teachings were becoming unwelcome to the old heathen leaders, and so they plotted to remove him. Thus he was attacked whilst in prayer and summarily decapitated ( other authorities say it was by pagan robbers possibly Vikings? ) They were described as:
‘a certain man more venomous than an asp, more poisonous than the adder’
They were said to have cut his head off with a spade and in the legend it is said:
“when he was beheaded with a spade, the trunk of the mutilated body, they say, raised itself and took its own head in its hands and carried it from the place where he was beheaded to a fountain of most limpid water, in which he was accustomed to wash his face with his hands. Which to this day in memory and reverence of him is called the ‘Fountain of Saint Decuman’, and is sweet, healthful, and necessary to the inhabitants for drinking purposes. In which place the head, together with the body, were afterwards sought for and found by the faithful, and honourably placed in a tomb”.
However his decapitation did not stop his missionary zeal and he picked up his head and washed in the nearby stream. After which he replaced it back on his own body and carried on. Others say that the spring itself arose where the head fell. It is said that this act was so miraculous that the local people helped build a church according Ben Norman’s 1992 Legends and Folklore of Watchet.
Legends associating springs with heads are common in holy well tradition and a number have been discussed on this blog. One wonders whether the spring was originally a pagan site in this case and that was why the pagan community was angry…this anger still continues I note as seen on Facebook and some forums!
The holy well
Dom Horne (1923) in Somerset Holy Wells states that
“the holy well is in a field at the west end of the church, and the water comes out between great stones set on end, having a third forming a roof on top of them. The water runs down sharply sloping field it flows into a number of stone basins, one below another”.
This is what remains today although it has gone through periods of neglect and vandalism since. Today the side walls consist of a number of slates, however the cover is still one large piece. The water still flows into three stone basins, although they are a little clogged with sediment. A series of steps ( somewhat eroded ) reach the well. A great deal of clear water remains in the well, and according to Horne, it was still sought after in 1923, although it would appear that bar a few coins, there is now no evidence of this.
Michael Calder in his 2003, Early ecclesiastical sites in Somerset: three case studies in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeology .& Natural History Society. Suggests that the spring maybe all that is left of an earlier minister church which was probably lost by the 11th century with the cult moving to the well and church once it had vanished.
Interesting a sign by the well states the well was restored in association with a local pagan society….perhaps at last the struggle has gone!