“The stone head from the mouth of which the main spring flows, pictured in Mrs Leather’s the Folklore of Herefordshire has miraculously survived the tanking of this well for a water supply, although he is now buried almost up to his nose in concrete.”
Jonathan Sant 1994’s Healing wells of Herefordshire
Such was the description that when I was touring the area visiting holy and healing wells in Herefordshire I gave St Peter’s Wells a miss thinking I’d be disappointed. However, the well was a notable one John Littlebury in his 1876, Directory and Gazetteer of Herefordshire notes that:
“The water of these wells was formerly extensively used for the cure of rheumatism and sore eyes.”
Indeed these appear to other springs, and this explains the name, St Peter’s Wells, Ella Leather in her Folklore of Herefordshire notes of these:
“There were formerly three springs here. Two near together, above the large well, were good for eye troubles; into these pins were thrown. They are now closed up.”
Ella Leather continues:
“The water of the larger well flowed through a sculptured head of St Peter into a shallow bathing place made for the use of sufferers from rheumatism. Mr J. Powell, of Peterchurch, told me in 1905, that he could remember this chilly remedy being actually used: it was in his boyhood. The ash tree which formerly stood near the well had been cut down, and still lay above it.”
It is evident from Leather’s photo that the head no longer had a flow of water through it and it appears that the bath was no longer beneath it. I would suggest that the head had not flowed for some time because it is clean and lacking in any moss which would come with constant water. L. Richards in his 1935 Wells and Springs of Herefordshire notes that:
“A considerable quantity of water issues from sandstone in the neighbourhood of St. Peter’s Wells above Wellbrook Farm and gives rise to Well Brook—joined by a tributary from a good spring in Bradley’s Wood—which flows under the road at Crossway and so into the River Dore. The spring water is hard, especially that from the ‘ Limestone ‘ which is well displayed in a quarry below Urishay Castle and on analysis by C. C. Duncan, F.I.C., F.C.S., proved to be 96.37 per cent, carbonate of lime.”
This hard water may explain its use for rheumatics perhaps.
Ancient pagan well?
With such a prominent head it is not surprisingly that there has been conjecture over a pagan origin, citing the Celtics fascination with heads, especially in connection with wells It is interesting that an ash tree is mentioned Ash trees were thought be sacred in pagan times and where associated with the legend of Odin’s eye and the well, but of course it is a common tree and it could be a coincidence. Sant (1994) notes:
“An iron cross has been found in the wood above the well, and this may have come from the well where it would have lent a less pagan air to the place.”
Where there was a link is not clear considering it was found in the woods and not at the well
A bath and baptism
Sant (1994) notes that the baths were provided with a:
“ shed for the rheumatic bather’s use.”
And according to George Marshall in 1933–5, ‘Fourth field meeting, 1933’, Tr. of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club 1933–5: xxvi–ix states that:
“up to quite recent times, baptisms were performed here, the bath being approached by eight stone steps. Mr Watkins explained that the steps and bath into which they lead was choked to the top with earth and the head was covered with water until recently, when excavations were made and the well renovated.”
Adopted for a water supply
The bath was restored in 1932 according to Richardson 1935 but this was short lived for it was soon adopted as a local water supply for the town
“Village Supply.—This belongs to the ‘ Peterchurch Water Supply Company ‘—a company constituted by an Indenture dated 2nd February, 1921,and consisting of the users of the scheme. There are two separate undertakings: a spring from sandstone collected at outburst into a brick tank above Wellbrook (by the side of the road to Stockley Hill where it is joined by the lane from St Peter’s Wells supplies the lower part of the village….”
The current reservoir was installed here in the 1960s, and its insensitive positioning rendered the ancient stone head redundant as noted by Sant 1994 and shown below.
However in 2015, as part of an infrastructure upgrade, a way was found to direct excess water through the stone head and water once again flowed through its mouth. In periods of very low groundwater levels the flow from the stone head may be reduced to a trickle due to demands from the water supply network.
When I did finally visit the site in 2017 I was delighted indeed to see this head restored to its usage and the well chamber visible, albeit difficult to approach as a result of the fence which understandable is around the site to protect the water supply. It now boasts to be the most notable holy well in the county once again.
“by the side of the ditch arose a spring, which superstition consecrated to St Ethelbert, there is a handsome old stone arch erected over it.”
William Stukeley (1724) Itinerary
Hereford’s St Ethelbert’s well sadly does not have a handsome old stone arch over it but down on Castle Green the site of the well is still marked. It is a well with a good degree of pedigree being first mentioned on a 1250 deed which in referring to a property records:
“a road leading towards the former fountain of blessed St Ethelbert”
Similarly a grant in 1359 to a John of Evesham refers to:
“the lane leading to the well of St Ethelbert”.
John Speed on his map of the town in 1611 draws it and Thomas Dingley in 1683 draws it.
The cult of St. Ethelbert
I have discussed the martyrdom of the saint in a previous post but it is worth recalling two traditions. One that as the body with its decapitated head was being carried to Hereford it fell and tripped over a blind man who was miraculously able to see. The other is that this was a resting place for the coffin before transfer to the cathedral but it is not mentioned in his main Vita. His body was transferred to the cathedral and became a shrine lost in the reformation. In 2008 a shrine surrounding a pillar near the high altar was established it shows scenes of the saints martyrdom.
The original well
In 1802 the well ‘appears on a plan… drawn as a circular feature enclosed by walls and approached by five stone steps. It was situated in the eastern corner of a garden soon to be occupied by St Ethelbert’s House’
By Wright (1819) A Walk through Hereford he was noting that:
“Some disjointed remains of this arch may yet be noticed; on each side the door in the modern wall are key stones, ornamented with foliage or corolla, with terminations of rib-work. In a niche above, defended by an iron palisade, is a head, wearing a crown, carved in stone; it is part of the image of St Ethelbert, which formerly stood in a niche on the ancient west front of Hereford Cathedral… The well is now provided with a pump erected and kept in repair during her life-time, by the late Johanna Whitmore, of this city.”
Thus by 1869 Havergal notes in Fasti Herefordenses and other Antiquarian Memorials of Hereford:
“the superstructure has long since disappeared, and the well itself is entirely excluded from sight by four brick walls and a vast accumulation of rubbish.”
In 1904, the original site was stopped up, although it was said then that a circular stone within Mr Custos Eckett’s garden marked the exact position, but that exact position itself was lost.
James Brome in his 1700 Travels Over England, Scotland and Wales stated that the well was:
“by the Trench near the Castle… a very fine Spring, call’d St Ethelbert’s Well, famous formerly for Miracles.”
Wright (1819) records it as:
“a beautiful limpid spring, formerly much reverenced; and even now in great esteem for its medicinal properties.”
Storer (1814–19) records that:
“the place is still visited by person s afflicted with ulcers and sores, to which the washing is often very salutary.”
Havergal again notes:
“many wonderful cures are said to have been effected at this well.”
W. J. Rees in their 1827 The Hereford Guide says that the water was:
“reputed to be of service to persons afflicted with bad eyes, ulcers, and sores of various kinds.”
“caused the cases to be ascertained in which the use of the water was of service.”
Yet in December 1822 when the water being analysed by Mr J. Murray:
“his opinion was that the medicinal qualities were not very important”.
It would appear if Wright is correct that it was traditional at some point to give a pin for he notes:
“In cleaning it out for that purpose, a great quantity of pins were found in its bottom.”
Watkins 1918-1920 noted that there was more than one site which claimed to be the well indeed there were four. These were as well as to the circular stone where the medieval well-house had been, and the new drinking fountain there was also:
“a pump and well in Dr Du Buisson’s yard in the line of the ditch…..a flowing spout of water, formerly running close under Castle Cliffe house at a spot which is, or ought to be, a public watering or landing approach to the river, and which ceased to flow on being cut off in laying a main sewer in 1888. Half a century ago my father investigated the possibility of bottling this water (with its medicinal reputation and attractive name) and secured its analysis, but was much surprised to find (in its organic impurities ) stronger indications of an origin in at own ditch than in a rock spring.”
Whitehead records how this drinking fountain was erected in 1904 and has been restored twice once by the Hereford Civic Trust and rededicated by the Right Reverend J.R.G. Eastaugh, the Lord Bishop of Hereford on St Ethelbert’s Day, 20 May 1978’
Sadly the waters are now not obtainable for Sant (1994) says it dried up during building works after the war. Today the sadly worn face of Ethelbert stares over a dry lion’s head.