Could the Birch Well be the Wanstead Well?
Tucked away on Leyton Flats in a Birch Wood near to the boundary fence of Snaresbrook Crown Court and near the Eagle Pond, is an enigmatic spring, called the Birch Well.
Enigmatic because there must be more we should know about the site. The spring arises in a substantial stone-lined oval well head around 1.5 metres long, one of the most substantial of any well in Essex.
The lost Wanstead Spring?
Discovered early in the Seventeenth Century, the Wanstead Spring was a potential spa. A John Chamberlain, the news-letter writer, writing from London to Sir Dudley Carleton, on August 1619, stated:
“ We have great noise here of a new Spa, or spring of that nature, found lately about Wansted; and much running there is to yt dayly, both by Lords and Ladies and other great companie, so that they have almost drawne yt drie alredy; and, yf yt should hold on, yt wold put downe the waters at Tunbridge; wch, for these three or foure yeares, have ben much frequented, specially this summer, by many great persons; insomuch that they wch have seene both say that yt [i.e., Tunbridge] is not inferior to the Spaa [in Belgium] for goode companie, numbers of people, and other appurtenances.”
Thresh and Christy (1913) in their seminal Medicinal Wells of Essex note significantly:
“We have been quite unable to ascertain anything as to the part of Wanstead parish in which this spring was situated. In all probability, it was quite a small spring. One may infer as much from Chamberlain’s statement that, within a short time of its discovery, the company resorting to it had ‘almost drawn it dry.’ If such was the case, the spring was, no doubt, soon deserted and ultimately forgotten.”
Both accounts appear to suggest that any significant spring in the Wanstead area could vie for the said well. The Birch Well has good provenance, particularly as it is a chalybeate, that is iron rich spring, a common feature of the early medicinal springs, and indeed Chamberlain by comparing to Tunbridge, possibly the best-known chalybeate well, is underling it is.
Further evidence is given by a correspondent, a Mr. Walter Crouch, F.Z.S., of Wanstead, who writes to Thresh and Miller. They state that the correspondent’s knowledge of the history of the parish is unequalled. He stated:
“I have always had the idea that this Mineral Spring was not at the Park end of our parish, which abuts ou Bushwood and Wanstead Flats, but in the vicinity of Snaresbrook and on the road which leads to Walthamstow; but it is possible that it was in the grounds of ‘The Grove’ (now cut up and built over).The spring is not marked on Kip’s View (1710), nor on Rocque’s large Map (1735), nor on Rocque’s still larger map of a few years later.”
Thresh and Christy (1913) took the suggestion of Snaresbrook and visited the Birch Well but was not 100% convinced. However, it is difficult on the paucity of evidence to be anyway near 100%!
Winifred Eastment in her 1946 Wanstead through the ages gives no indication that the spa spring and the Birch well are one and the same but does emphasis that it was one of the most important public wells of Wanstead and indeed people from beyond the parish payed a penny for three buckets or 1.6d for a buttful! Although it is clear it was only used for drinking water. More curiously a local tradition tells how at least one person drowned at the well before the stone surround was established. Before this the site was more open, described as an open gravel pit with wooden steps, much like some of the earlier spas are indeed described.
So, is the Birch Well Wanstead Spa? I think it is highly probable. The site is clearly important by its position by the boundary, noted by a small boundary stone by the well. However, the chalybeate water produced by the spring head is perhaps the most suggestive.
Japan is a spiritual place. One of many sacred places. The majority of these being associated with the Shinto faith. Water is protected by the Suijin, a type of kami or Shinto spirit. These creatures were believed to be either serpents, eels or kappa . Women in the Shinto society were thought to be able commune with the Suijin and across Japan there are a number of sacred springs.
One important Shinto site is Mount Fuji which is doted with shrines or Akagami. In the grounds of the main one, Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha is a the sacred water of Mt Fuji said to have considerable healing properties. At the Goshado Shrine is the Sugatami-no Ido, or the Well of Full-Length Mirror, which is supposed to reflect the person’s remaining days who looks into the well. If no reflection is seen the person will die in three years!
A feature of the temples are the purification pools, or Mitarashi-no Ike, or ‘Holy Washing Pond’ Local legend states that at the one on Mount Hakusan that it is still haunted by mountain spirits and that it was formed in a single night, and through the years it has never run dry, even when the region was struck by droughts. At the Kashima Shrine, it is said that whether tall or short, the pond will have the same depth!
Japan’s other main religion is Buddhism and this too has it sacred water sources. The Daishi-do temple is set into the cliff of the Goishizan mountain. Dedicated to Shingon Buddhist founder Kobo Daishi. It is here that a spring can be found. Local legend tells us that Kobo Daishi formed it by hitting the ground with his staff. Beside the spring is a figure of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, a Buddhist Bodhisattva, an enlightened figure. What is interesting is that the area of Dounzan is especially sacred during the Summer Solstice because an image of Kannon appears on the rock said to caused by the light.
Of course Japan is particularly famed for its Onsen or Hot Springs, which are distributed widely across the country
Deep in the woods is one of Surrey’s forgotten springs, a site possibly a holy well, probably a pagan spring, so nearly a spa. In Fields, Paths and Green Lanes being county walks, chiefly in Surrey and Sussex , Louise Jennings in 1878 notes:
“Mr. Urban’s correspondent is among the very few writers who have made any mention of ” Mag’s Well,” a spot which the compilers of all the local guide-books have passed by without a word. It is the charmed spring of the district, and lies not far from the village of Coldharbour.”
However, Mag’s Well was noted at length by William Thorne’s The Garden of Surrey:
“MAG’S WELL This is a mineral spring rising on a farm called Meriden about three miles from Dorking and forming the source of the stream called Pipbrook which runs past Dorking town Instances of extraordinary cures in cutaneous and scrofulous diseases are related of it and it is said to have derived the name of Mag’s Well from a poor woman of the name of Margery who first experienced its healing effects in the cure of a scorbutic disorder.”
John Aubreys’ 1719 Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey is the first to note it and gives its origin as
“The reason it was called Mag well was because a poor wench, whose name was Meg, that was troubled with the itch, and lived thereabout, first cured herself with washing”
Cures for all – even the animals
John Timbs in A picturesque promenade round Dorking, in which he quotes the Gazette of Health thus speaks of the water
“The water of Mag’s Well on accurate analysis proves to be slightly impregnated with the sulphate of magnesia and iron It is entirely free from calcareous matter and approaches very nearly to the Malvern water It may prove beneficial as an alternative and in obviating costiveness but to produce an aperient effect it must be combined with the sulphate of magnesia or the sulphate of soda.”
The account continues noting its possible use for animals as well:
“ equally efficacious there being as 1 understand not only a convenient place of bathing for bipeds but a species of bath for quadrupeds which are frequently brought from a distance to be cured of various distempers by immersion in Mag’s Well which in summer it is said is colder and in winter warmer than the water of other springs”
Timbs again continues:
“Taken internally the water was long believed to be at once strongly cathartic and emetic That opinion has probably been less prevalent since the publication of Manning’s Surrey in which these alleged properties are strongly controverted although in that work it is said to be detergent.”
Timbs decides to examine at first hand the site:
“ however that many of the country people continue to put great faith in the virtue of Mag’s Wells 1 resolved personally to examine what is esteemed one of the curiosities of Surrey The farm on which the well is situated belongs to the College Guildford and is in the tenantry of George Dewdney esq banker remote from any public road and embosomed in woods A pedestrian excursion to the vale in which the spring rises appeared the only mode by which I could obtain my object the obscurity in which the well is hidden rendering it inaccessible to a carriage and almost to a horse for nearly the last mile of approach.”
It was perhaps its remoteness that preventing any commercial venture, that notwithstanding he notes that:
“The bath or well is comprehended within a building the sides and ends of which are joined into right angles but there is no roof Immediately opposite the entrance of the building is the door way to the bath into which there is a descent of five steps the bath is in length about seven feet and in width and in depth between four and five feet The water enters at an aperture on the right and the surplus when the bath is full discharges itself over a lip on the left the whole can be readily run off through a vent at the bottom and at the left hand corner by drawing a plug The whole structure has apparently been for sometime much neglected The entrance and the exit of the water being imperfect the bath was nearly empty the depth not being more than three or four inches.”
Of the water he gives the lengthy discourse:
“Although the day was extremely cold there did not appear any extraordinary sensation of coldness on immersing the hand in the well and the mercury of a thermometer the bulb of which was immersed for ten minutes did not descend much below fifty A taste differing from ordinary spring water was not positively to be discriminated certainly not the slightest perception of saline particles could be distinguished The only taste I could fancy I detected was that of iron but in so slight a degree as to preclude all positive assertion of the fact In order however to ascertain if the powers imputed to the water of the spring are or are not fallacious a scientific examination of its properties would undoubtedly be satisfactory factory to the public I have therefore directed a quantity of water to be taken from the well and sent to you sufficient I conceive for analysis in the hope that you may not deem it unworthy of your notice Dorking December 1817 JM The water of Mag’s Well on accurate analysis proves to be slightly impregnated with the sulphate of magnesia And iron It is entirely free from calcareous matter and approaches very nearly to the Malvern water It may prove beneficial as an alternative and in obviating costiveness but to produce an aperient effect it must be combined with the sulphate magnesia or the sulphate of soda”
Mag’s well still survives although it is difficult to gauge which is the source as the neglect has continued since Timb’s day. There is a well structure covered by a decaying wooden lid and nearby a larger pool, perhaps the aforementioned bath.
An ancient well?
Some historians have attempted to produce evidence for a pre-Christian origin of the site, some suggesting the name Mag may refer to a pre-Christian deity. More convincing was its location in an area called Cold Harbour. For many years this was the accepted view given by Basil Barham of the East Herts Archæological Society, Author of “Changing Place Names,” in the Times:
“The origin of the name Cold Harbour has been discussed several times. It is a Saxon place name, and means exactly what it says, viz., a “cold,” as distinct from an inhabited refuge. The Cold Harbours are all in the vicinity of one or other of the great Neolithic or Roman roads, and were originally the remains of partially destroyed Roman or Romano-British dwellings, or settlements. Travellers used them as being more or less secure places in which to spend a night. As the places became known, traders gathered there to distribute goods and do business, and eventually the places once more became villages, but retained the old generic name.”
However, despite the convenience of this view point it is now generally discredited. Of course as the majority of England’s road are based on Roman ones it is statistically likely they would be found with them! Indeed half of the populated places in England are 3.5 km or less from a Roman road This and research that showed the name Coldharbour was popular in the 17th century seems to suggest otherwise!”
Notwithstanding there is sometime otherworldly about this well and whatever its origin it survives, slightly forgotten, in its woodland setting.
It was in the Bord’s trailblazing Mysterious Britain that I first saw a picture of Dupath Well. It looked very mysterious shrouded in undergrowth, peering from the woods like a Cornish Anker Wat. Seeing the illustration reproduced above in Charles Hope’s 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells similarly whetted my appetite.
Hope’s description did however add to the mystery:
“Dupath Well is a pellucid spring, once the resort of pilgrims and still held in esteem. It overflows a trough, and entering the open archway of a small chapel, spreads itself over the floor and passes out below a window at the opposite end. The little chapel, 12 feet long by 11 ½ wide, is a complete specimen of the baptisteries anciently so common in Cornwall. It has a most venerable appearance, and is built of granite, which is gray and worn by age. The roof is constructed of enormously long blocks of granite, hung with fern, and supported in the interior by an arch, dividing the nave and chancel. The doorway faces west; at the east end is a square-headed window of two lights, and two openings in the sides. The building is crowned by an ornamental bell-cote.”
The Quiller- Couch’s in their 1894 Holy Wells of Cornwall note:
“A portion of the front is overrun with ivy ; grass and weeds grow in clumps from the chinks of the roof…… The spot has a deserted look, and breathes of solitude and gloom .”
They added that despite being overgrown was then in a much better state that previous:
“It was found several years since by the Rev. H. M. Rice, Rector of South-hill and Callington (an ardent antiquary, in the line of ecclesiology especially), in a very dilapidated condition. He carefully picked out the ruins lying around; and, with the carefulness of one trying to put together a dissected puzzle, succeeded in restoring the well.”
The site certainly was of considerable interest. I finally succeeding in making the pilgrimage in the early 1990s. Despite English Heritage’s considerable tidying up of the site and Hope’s widely over ambitious sizing, the site was and is one of the most impressive holy wells in the county.
Hope (1893) notes that:
“The well is famed for the combat between Sir Colam and Gotlieb for the love of a lady; Gotlieb was killed, and Sir Colam died of his wounds.”
Parochial History of Cornwall the tradition connected with this well was as follows :
“ A duel was fought here between two Saxons, named Gotlieb and Sir Colan, as rival candidates for a young lady. Gotlieb was a private gentleman of considerable wealth; while Sir Colan, though a knight, was poor. The father of the lady wished her to marry Gotlieb, on account of his wealth ; but she preferred Sir Colan, whom she had known from childhood. Sir Colan received the first wound, but ultimately overcame Gotlieb and killed him. The contest was long and desperate ; Sir Colan’s wound would have healed but for his impatience, to which he fell a victim.”
Quiller-Couch note that:
“There are several versions of this romantic story, the names differing in some cases, and usually the victorious one is described as surviving the effects of the duel, and building Dupath Well as an act of atonement for his sin and a witness of his repentance.”
Now Quiller Couch questioned veracity of the legend:
“This well has suffered greatly from being made the peg on which to hang modern-antique fable. The country people know nothing of Siward and Githa , who are purely the creation of individual fancy. Mr. Kempthorne, long a resident of Callington, has inquired among the eld, and can find no trace of such a story ; and Mrs. Rice, the widow of the restorer of the well, says that her husband would most assuredly have embodied in his paper any reputed mystic qualities or local traditional tales had any such existed.”
However, followers of this blog will see some familiarity with this story and that related by Guest Blogger Frank Earp in his post on Newark’s St Catherine’s Well, which I recommend readers to read and compare with this story. In short Frank considers that the story hides an older story perhaps emphasizing the battle between the summer and the winter. Does the story relate ome folk memory of the sites importance in pre-Christian ritual remembered here. It is interesting to note that the Newark legend is also said to be made up story! One also wonders whether the Cornish name Fenton Hynsladron, spring of the robber’s path hides a link possibility to this story.
Of its history and tradition the English Heritage website tells us that:
“The small chapel-like building was probably built in about 1510 by the Augustinian canons of the nearby priory of St Germans, to whom the site belonged. It was dedicated to St Ethelred.
The little building may have been a worthwhile financial investment for the canons of St Germans, since visitors to the spring would have left offerings, much as they do at wishing wells today. We know from monastic records that such sources of income were jealously guarded by religious houses.”
They note that the well’s water was used for whopping cough and may have been for baptism, possibly bowsenning – ie curing madness.
Today people still visit the well and perhaps take the waters, although it lacks the paraphernalia that attracts wells in the west of the county. A delightful if slightly sanitised well a record of what many other wells would have looked like if they had not let the rigors of time and zealots rob us of them!
“+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”
So reads the inscription at one of the country’s most famous and picturesque holy wells…but what is the truth?
The most beautiful fountain….
Taking the lane up from between the houses and the side of the farm, climbing over and stile and into a pastoral landscape, ancient oaks lie to the left and a small babbling brook, moving away at great speed as we follow this the enclosure of the well is ahead of us. Here laying in this peaceful enclosure
Whose well is it?
Three names appear to be attributed to the well – Lady, St Ninian and St Paulinus. Which is the correct one? Certainly the later was current in John Warburton in his 1715 History of Northumberland describes it as:
“Paulinus’ Well, a very beautiful fountain in a square figure, length 42 feet and 21 foot in breadth; wall’d about with a curious stone resembling porfire, paved in the bottome and incompos’d with a grove of trees and at each corner thereof the foundation of a small [illegible]. Out of the well floweth a stream of water very cold, and clear as christall, and if cleaned out would be a most comodious cold bath and perhaps effect several cures without a marvell. At the east end lyeth a stone 3 foot in length and 2 in breadth called the holy stone, said to be the same whereon the forementioned bishop kneeled at his baptising of the heathen English; and was formerly held in great veneration by the gentry of the Roman Catholick religion who oft-times come here on pilgrimage.”
This association with St. Paulinus is easily explained. Although Bede descrived the conversion of 3000 this was misread by John Leland as Sancte Petre (holy stone )but it was Sancti Petri – St Peter’s Minster, York…an easy mistake but one which then enters as fact into Camden’s Britannia and consolidated over and over again! This was further endorsed by as William Chatto (1935) notes:
“a stone figure, intended for Paulinus, which was brought from Alnwick in 1780.”
The name Lady’s Well is also easily explained there was a Benedictine priory of Holystone which was dedicated to the Virgin in the 13th century and either their name was transferred to or else they renamed it. It was probably the former as the a signboard was first seen by a William Chatto seen in 1835 is the first to call it ‘the Lady’s Well’ and it appears on such on the 1866 OS. Hall (1880) calls it ‘St Ninian’s Well’. By the time of Butler (1901–2) all three names were in use, as he says that:
‘the beautiful well at Holystone, known to us as “The Lady’s Well”, described… as“The Well of St Paulinus”, was formerly “St Ninian’s Well”’
When visited by Dixon (1903) it was:
“a spring of beautiful water in a grove of fir trees a little north of the village. The well is a quadrangular basin within a neatly kept enclosure; the key of the gate can be obtained at the Salmon Inn… A stone statue of an ecclesiastic, originally brought from Alnwick castle, formerly stood in the centre of the well, but a few years ago this was removed and placed at the west end of the pool, and a cross of stone bearing the following inscription substituted: “+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”’.
A sizeable hoard
Hall (1880) notes that:
“At the bottom, visible through the pellucid water, Dr Embeton informs me he has formerly noticed many pins lying.”
Binnall and Dodds (1942–6) found it:
“now a wishing well, into which crooked pins or occasionally pence or halfpence are thrown.”
No pins can be seen in its waters although they would be hidden by the leaves and perhaps the sign which notes:
“don’t damage (sic) the water as it’s the village water supply”
However, beside the saint’s statue laying at his foot is a small hoard of modern coins and so perhaps starts a modern tradition. One wonders what happens to the money? National Trust? Church or local landowner?
All in all despite its duplicity with names and dubious origins sitting in the arbour of trees and peering into that clean beautiful water in this remote location you are divorced from the modern world and its modern problems…and if for that reason only Holystone’s special spring is worthy of a top ten for anyone.
Our Lady’s Well which in on the north side of Burley Road, Oakham, about a quarter of a mile east of the Odd House Inn. Rev Thomas Cox’s New Survey of Great Britain (1720-31) states:
“In ancient Times, before the Reformation, there was a Custom among the devout People of this Nation, and especially of these Parts, to go on Pilgrimage in Honour of the blessed Virgin Mary, to a Spring in this Parish, about a Quarter of a Mile from the Town, which is still known by the Name of our Lady’s Well, near which we may perceive in several Places the Foundations of an House or two remaining; but that which will confirm our Belief of such an Usage, is a Record found in the First fruits Office, containing, among other Things these Words, That very many Profits and Advantages belonging and appertaining to the Vicarage of Okeham did consist in divers Obventions and Pilgrimages to the Image of the Virgin Mary at the Well, and St. Michael the Archangel, and diverse other Rites and Oblations, which now are quite abolished, with the Benefits and Advantages which accrued there-from to the Vicar.”
As suggested above in the mid-1200-1300s, indulgences could be obtained by visiting it and the church during its patronal festival. By 1565/6, Jones (2007) states compensation was confirmed for the loss of:
“various offerings and pilgrimages [including] the late image of Blessed Mary at the spring.”
The site is recorded as Ladies Well in 1632, the Lady’s Well, 1691 and then Lady Well in 1801, becoming Our Lady’s Well in the 1885 OS map. The spring’s water was said to be good for sore eyes, only as Palmer (1985) notes:
“It was still renowned for healing powers in the Victorian era, and its water was applied to the eyes for soreness, provided that a pin had first been thrown into the well”
The site was even visited according to Matthews (1978) by Princess (later Queen) Alexander in 1881 when she stayed at Normanton Park. Now a boggy hole surrounded by modern housing in a nature reserve managed by Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.
Cox (1994) notes the field name Helwelle in 1498. The site may be another name for the above site. The first part of the name suggesting it derived from hæl meaning ‘omen’ or hælu meaning ‘health.
Alternatively, it may be another name for Chriswell, a lost site on the opposite side of Burley Road to Our Lady’s Well. Its name may derive from Christ. Whatever its origins, it was said to have been used by a Belgian refugee in the First World War to cure his sick cow. It appears to have been a holy well as apparently the church collected money from the well.
Lost in the undergrowth
Sadly Oakham’s Lady Well is a far cry from its former self. Enclosed in dense and impenetrable undergrowth; brambles, nettles and briars, meaning that the source cannot be reached without considerable effort and pain. However, through the help of a local who was able to give an easier route to the well, I managed to reach it in a private garden. However unfortunately although the spring still flows the source is a boggy morass. Considering its fame one would imagine that the well head may retain some form of infrastructure, but nothing remains, bar some iron staining. Enclosed in a 1990s housing estate and largely forgotten, unfortunately there is little to excite even the most ardent holy well researcher!
Our guest blog post this month is from author Michael Houlihan who has recently published an excellent work on the Holy Wells of County Clare which includes 60 colour plates, maps and invaluable information. Michael completed an MA in Arts (Local History) in 2015, having previously done courses in Archaeology and Regional Studies. He has published two books, “Puck Fair, History and Traditions” (1999) and “The Holy Wells of County Clare” (2015). He is currently working on a book entitled “The Sacred Trees of County Clare” of which this article is a very welcome introduction. A review of his book is coming soon.
When considering writing a piece on Clare holy wells recently, I thought that instead of focussing on the springs I might instead take a look at sacred trees, which form such an intimate part of the holy well space. I am no expert, but it seems to me that these trees seldom get the attention they deserve and are now only recognized as an additional artefact, there to complement the blessed well. Before starting, for those of you who may not know Clare, it is one of the 32 Irish counties, lying in the lower half of the west coast, hemmed in by the Atlantic, the river Shannon to the east and south, and ferocious Galway men (at least when playing the game of hurling) to the north.
Debate on the age of Irish holy wells ebbs and flows. Currently it’s thought that many wells (not all) came into use in the early medieval period. They were in active use for several centuries, faded a bit and were re-invigorated around the late 16th century (possibly prompted in part by Counter Reformation activities?) Sacred trees are generally grouped with the wells, lending both status and sanctity to the holy well site. There is little doubt that during the enormous deforestation that took place in Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries it was a significant advantage to trees to stand within the termonn or protected area of the well. This location also shielded them during searches for kindling or charcoal material in later years, as no sacred wood could be burned.
There is a growing school of thought pushing scholars towards the notion that a very early deep reverence for trees might indeed have been a significant Irish phenomenon. These trees may have been a source of veneration in themselves and part of a belief system at least as old as the sacred spring. There are clues to this in the literature (cf. Dindsheanchais) but perhaps one of the best indicators of an ancient tree custom is the word bile, pronounced ‘bill-a’, meaning ‘sacred tree.’ Anglicised to bella, billa, billy, villa, vella and many other variants, it occurs in hundreds of place-names across the country. A short exercise identified eight bile place-names in county Clare alone. A deeper look would certainly lead to more.
There is no doubting the very early and constant presence of sacred trees in the story of Ireland. Without visiting the history too closely, the earliest written records – transcriptions taken from a long oral tradition – speak of the five sacred trees of Ireland, reaching back to the mythic era. At the beginning of the Christian age a little after 400 AD as writing began to come into use, trees were important to both secular and religious. No king had a cathair or estate without his sacred tree (bile ratha), no inauguration or assembly site was without one or more trees, churches and saints were all the stronger for the presence of trees. The tree as source or symbol was associated with power.
When this age passed, trees maintained their presence at holy wells and abandoned monasteries or were left standing apart in open plains. Many trees stood for centuries. Gnarled and heavy, they finally keeled over in exceptional old age. Even then, lying spent, they were honoured with votive rags or coins hammered into their trunks.
Holy Wells and Sacred Trees: It is generally understood that a tree or bush beside a holy well partakes of the sanctity of the well. Many folktales combine the origins of the holy well and sacred tree. In others the tree came later, or perhaps more correctly, the story explaining the presence of the tree came later. One such tale describes a severe drought on Scattery Island in the Shannon estuary, forcing the sixth century Saint Senan to dig a pit with a hazel stick. When finished he stuck the rod in the ground beside the hole. The following morning crystal clear waters flowed from the hollow and the stick had grown to a full sized tree. Bile cuill (the sacred hazel) is said to have stood beside the well for generations.
When Saint Finghín’s well was deliberately filled in, water was seen dripping from a nearby tree. Tobercrine (tobar i gcrainn – the tree well) can still be pointed out beside the ruined abbey today. A tree that grew from a stick blessed and planted by St. Feicín at Loughcooter (now Loughcutra) was much venerated (3). St. Muaghan’s tree stood as an emblem of sanctity at Kilmoon holy well in the north of the county until old age caused it to topple in the nineteenth century… and so the stories continue.
Trees are not only cherished companions of the well but also serve as markers around which people move when performing the prescribed ‘rounds’ or ‘stations’ – walking meditations if you will. When prayers are completed, rags are tied to the tree or bush as an offering of thanks and a means of leaving concerns in the care of the saint. One remote Clare well, dedicated to St. Colman Mac Duagh, has extensive offerings on its rag tree. It lies hidden in a grove of hazels for much of the year and contains many of the elements of an early Irish eremitical site – holy well, rag tree, hermit’s cave, 7th century oratory and two leachta (altars), as well as having a significant corpus of stories about its past.
There is one reference from the early 1900’s which might suggest remnants of tree veneration near a holy well, which reads ‘The devotees take off their shoes, stockings, and hats, (or, if women, their shawls and bonnets), and start for the well repeating the prescribed prayers. They climb to kiss a cross on the branch of one of the weird old weather-bent trees in the hollow, and, lastly, pour water from the well on their faces, hands, and feet.’ 4 The addition of a crucifix to the tree here may have Christianized an older practice. However the tree may also have been nothing more than a ‘station’ in the prescribed ‘rounds’ of the well.
The types of trees found at holy well sites vary enormously. The ash seems to have been by far the most important tree in ancient Ireland (not the oak as one might think, even as a leftover of things Celtic – blame Pliny.) A study of 210 holy wells in Cork in the 1960’s found a prevalence of thorns or whitethorns (103), ash (75) and oak (7), with a mixture of other trees making up the remaining 25.5 The blackthorn – small, wizened and nearly indestructible – has always been a favourite as a rag bush, especially on poor land.
Saints, Holy Wells and Trees: Patricius/Patrick, arriving from Romano-Britain in the 430’s with his missionaries started a religious conflagration that, it could be argued, has not yet been fully extinguished. He introduced Christianity gradually to the Irish, permitting the new religion to disseminate slowly, mixing the best of what went before with the new faith. In this context, Christian missionaries recognized the importance of venerated springs and trees to the Irish (or likely already had a sense of these connections themselves?) Patrick re-dedicated former indigenous cult centres to Christianity. From the annals we read that he went to Tobar Slán, a spring venerated by the druids, which he blessed and thus Christianized. Sometime later he “went thereafter to Bile Tortain and near to Bile Tortain he built for Justian the presbyter a church, which now belongs to the community of Ard Brecáin.” Bile Tortain was one of the five great trees of Ireland that stood at Ardbraccan in county Meath. (6) There is a tale about another of the five sacred trees, Eo Rossa, that when it died of old age St. Molaisse divided it among the saints of Ireland. St. Moling of Carlow utilised his portion in making shingles to roof his oratory. This tale might be read as a form of Christian triumphalism or more kindly, an acknowledgement and retention of sacredness in a new role.(7)
A great love of the natural world permeated early Irish Christianity. One has only to read some first millennium nature poems by the saints to see this. Here is a small flavour from a longer piece entitled Atá Uarboth Dam I Caill, translated here as ‘The Hermit.’ The 9th century poem is attributed to Saint Marbáin, in which he describes nature’s bounty at his little hermitage.
I have a bothy in the wood –
none knows it but the Lord, my God;
one wall an ash, the other hazel,
and a great fern makes the door.
The doorsteps are of heather,
The lintel of honeysuckle;
and wild forest all around
drops mast for well-fed swine.*
Trees of apple, huge and magic,
great its graces;
crop in fistfuls from clustered hazel,
green and branching.
Sparkling wells and water-torrents,
best for drinking;
green privet there and bird-cherry
and yew-berries. 8
As well as the cherished trees at holy wells there are several other tree types held in affection across the Clare countryside. These include inauguration and assembly trees, religious trees directly associated with a church, monastery or graveyard, trees found within liosanna or ‘fairy forts’, funerary trees at which a funeral might pause, Mass trees and lone bushes. It is with lone bushes we will complete our story.
Lone Bushes: Lone bushes tend to be in a category separate to the trees we have been discussing, coming from a long-held indigenous belief system that has only recently faded. They are mostly stand-alone whitethorns that grow at a distance from other trees. In Irish the whitethorn is called Sceach gheal meaning bright or shining (thorn) tree, because of its profusion of splendid white flowers in early summer. The single whitethorn is strongly associated with fairy folk who, as people will know, are at the best of times a bit temperamental. Consequently lone bushes are never interfered with; the month of May being the only time some latitude is given. Being supernatural trees they serve as important foci for the Lucht Sidhe (the fairies), particularly before important events. Here our Clare story lies.
In the late 1980’s the main motorway going north from Limerick city (M18) was being significantly upgraded. To facilitate road expansion a fairy tree at Latoon, Newmarket-on-Fergus would need to be destroyed. Local folklorist Eddie Lenihan objected saying that this tree marked territories between two groups of Sidhe (Shee) and was an important assembly point before and after fairy battles. Its removal would not alone be an outrage to folklore and tradition – much worse – should the wrath of the Sidhe descend, it could have serious repercussions for traffic users passing the spot in the future. Whichever aspects of Eddie’s argument were most cogent, he won his case. The route of the motorway was altered and the tree still stands.
A last word on an important aspect of holy wells and trees not yet mentioned is the modern pilgrim. A cohort of people across county Clare, mostly made up of the very young and the no longer young maintain the wonderful tradition of holy well visitation, including interacting with the bile, especially on the saint’s patron day. For them the well is a living entity, to be honoured and enjoyed. It’s a day of rosary beads and prayer, flasks of tea and sandwiches, small courtesies and chats with fellow pilgrims, with plastic bottles of blessed water being filled for friends at home. Later they will return to help maintain the holy well site or perhaps cajole their sons to fix a damaged wall or fallen stone. Whether they know it or not, and I think they do, they are the last remains of a vast tradition.
1 Irish Folklore Collection, Ms. 466, p. 398.
2 Daniel Mescal, The Story of Inis Cathaigh, (Dublin 1902), p. 65.
3 Irish Folklore Collection, Journal 12, p. 73.
4. TJ Westropp, recorded on a visit to what is now St. Joseph’s Well, Kilmurry Ibrickane, in Limerick Field Club Journal. Vol III No 9 1905 p 15.
5 A.T Lucas, ‘The sacred trees of Ireland’ in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, (JCHAS), lxviii, (Cork, 1963), pp 16-54.
6 The Tripartite Life of Patrick, 9th Century, CELT, (UCC, Cork) p. 185.
7 J. F. M. Ffrench, ‘St. Mullins, Co. Carlow’ in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. ii, No. 4 (Dec., 1892), pp 377-388
8 James Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics, The Dolmen Press, (Dublin 1967), pp 67-72.
Available from Limerick & Clare Books
The Holy Wells of County Clare
County Clare contains one of the greatest concentrations of holy wells in Ireland. While most wells are associated with local saints, some have earlier origins and different affiliations. In this book, Michael Houlihan tours these wells, examining their long history from earliest times and reviewing their unique traditions. The defining characteristics of native wells and their distinctive physical features are explored along the way.Holy Wells have been of service to generations of Irish people. In spite of repeated waves of invasion and suppression, followed by political and religious strife, over 3,000 wells still exist in Ireland today. They once proved a centre for religious expression when no other existed, offered shelter in Penal times and served as a focus for communal solidarity. In Clare, participation was strongest in the decades before the famine, when venerated springs made a huge contribution to local communities. They performed a key role in village healthcare systems and erased the pain of bereavement, especially involving infants. Te continuing loss of the Irish language and the slow attrition of long-held folk beliefs, also at this time, deeply impacted daily life, including holy well usage.
The great holy well patterns of the late 18th century, once the high point in the rural social calendar, are discussed, including those in Clare on Scattery Island and Inis Cealtra and at Killone. When the Catholic Church began reasserting itself, aided in part by Daniel O’Connelll’s in the 1828 Ennis by-election, the Patron Day gatherings and other aspects of folk life were slowly surrendered, as the last vestiges of the old Gaelic world slipped away. The Famine compounded these changes, with congregations forfeiting the fields and wells for the new chapels.
The holy wells story continues into the presentm including its occasional high points in the twentieth century. Ten contemporary Clare wells are visited, from the popular St. Brigid’s at Ballysteen to others since fallen out of favour. A final section discusses the health of the holy well tradiiton in the county today.
The book contains nearly 60 colour photographs from across the county, with some basic maps and tables for those interested in doing their own exploration. While Clare’s holy wells have long been associated with peace and health, they are also an archaeological and historical treasure trove waiting to be rediscovered. This book will help those who want to better understande a neglected feature of the landscape while catching up on a lost part of Clare’s social history.
€ 9.15 Save €0.85 (RRP €10.00)
Usually despatched in 1-2 working days
Laying on private farm land is one of the most curious holy wells in the country. A well associated with a curious 14th century legend. The earliest account is as a place name Holywellfette in 1534. Compton (1979) in his work on Bisham Abbey records:
“A spring of water that rose from beneath a chalky hill in a field that for some time took on the name of Holy-well. The site, now being disfigured by the making of a road, is on the left at the foot of Bisham hill, coming from Maidenhead”
Rutherfurd’s 1935 A rationalised miracle in medieval England states:
The well had been associated with the curing of a man who bathed his eyes in the well. Nothing unusual there but the cult that developed obviously concerned the religious authorities. In short it records how in 1385 Bishop Erghum was attempting to prevent ‘pilgrims’ from Marlow and Wycombe visiting a well at Bisham. It is stated:
“to the Bishop of Lincoln urging him to take steps against those commiyting idolatory at the new well near Bustleham.”
What is more unusual is that it was associated with a tame bird who sat on a nest over the well and would not fly away, could be handed and placed offerings in its nest. According to the Bishop they were:
“blinded by the phantasy of diabolical deceit”
The report records in Latin as follows:
“Et pro eo quod, ut dicitur, in eodemn fonte, iuxta quem in quodam arbore insuper nidificans quedam duis minibus hominum in nido suo tacta illorum, ut asseritur, non recessit, ymmo quia domestica et satis domita in nido reposita pacifice requievit, lippus quidam vir fantasticus, suos nuper lauans oculos defluentes estu feruido autumpnali* adustos et potu superfiuo plus solito humectantes, oculorum suorum lippitudines frigore aquatico naturaliter operante refrigescere senciebat, hoc nunc reputat pro miraculo multorum erronie credentium ceca lenitas scandalizans; unde modernis temporibus ad fontem eundem tanquam ad locum sanctissimum multi confluunt, et ibidem offerunt et adoran’t. Quorum quidam in nidum dicte auis, vile gizofilacium suis et pullorunm suorum stercoribus maculat-um, es iactant, et nephanda manu prophanas oblaciones turpissima deuotionte reponunt, in sancte matris ecclesie scandalum, fidei catholice preudicium, perniciosum exemplum plurimorum, ac ipsorum sic ut premittitur ydolatrantium grave periculum animarum.”
A rough translation meaning:
“And because, as stated in place, the spring, according to which, moreover, a bird makes its nest in a tree which men touched, as it is asserted, is not gone, but it is enough for domestic and tamed in the nest is laid to rest in peace,
His eyes just wash away the heat of battling autumn dour and drink more than usual superfluous humectants, his eyes rheumy cold the water naturally functioning cold feel, that counts for a miracle now believed by many erroneous blind leniency offending;
Hence, in these modern times to the same source, as many flock to the holy place, and there they must not show adoration. Some said the bird in the nest, which you provide nefarious profane offerings with ugly devotion. This is a scandal of our holy mother church scandal and disastrously prejudice the Catholic faith and is an example of many of them and so that the aforementioned idolatry a grave danger to souls.”
This profane and heathen devotion appears to be more about the bird’s nest and its bird who’s tameness was put down to the holiness of the place. A peculiar cult had thus developed. However, it was possible that the Bishop was wrong in viewing the bird as part of the cult. The leaving of money deposits in the nest was probably because it was a convenient and safe place rather than being ‘for the bird’.
The Bishop had informed them that the coldness of the water was responsible for the cure and the rural dean was ordered to fill in the well and tear up the tree. Excommunication was threatened against anyone who visited the site. This was apparently done, but it is clear at some point the well was uncovered. Presumably the bird flew away.
The cult of Elizabeth I
I have made the connection before between holy wells and Elizabeth I. It is evident that as the populace still needed holy wells, and the move to protestant ideology prevented this. However some wells appeared to have been rededicated to Elizabeth at the height of her cult and thereafter, perhaps allowing legitimate visits. The cult was short lived perhaps as scientific understanding allowed the development of spas. The earliest reference to the site is the John Nichol’s 1788 Progresses and public processions of Queen Elizabeth:
“In this Parish in the fields called the Moors is a well which still bears the name of Queen Elizabeth’s Well, and seems to be the only remembrance left of her frequent visits to the spot.”
In this case local legend states that when she stayed with the Hoby family of Bisham Abbey during her three day stay used the water to bath due to its traditions of healing. This traditions continued until recent as Compton (1979) notes:
“Local belief in the healing properties of the spring, however, lingered on in the minds of those who, traditionally and by birth, were part of the district. Less than a lifetime ago there were people still living who claimed that application of the water (which broadens into a stream running at the base of Quarry Woods) had relieved some complaint of their eyes or bettered their vision. In 1905 the water, after being analysed, was said to owe any curative effect to suspended gases.”
At this site alone one can see how vital the holy well was for the community and how much wealth it could generate. Indeed, the name a quite difficult to pronounce Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch is related to the well or rather the waterfall it produces beside the church (Llan).
Before visiting the well, I recommend a visit to the church. A grand and imposing edifice with a splendid roof and its chief treasure – its Jesse Window – why? This is because it was said to have been paid for from offerings from the well. Fortunately, it was removed and was buried at the time of the Commonwealth and thus was preserved.
From behind the church an archway leads over a stream and through a woodland towards this mighty of all Welsh holy wells. The route has been considerably improved with fine brick arches, giving an idea of the grandeur of this site. Once there it does not disappoint being a large bath structure. A considerably flow of water arises here clear and clean from two springs one possibly called Fynnon Fair. Indeed, the 16th century Leland antiquarian noted it was:
“a mighty spring that maketh a brook running scant a mile”
The water fills a large bath stone lined bath, said to have a marble bottom and under an archway tumbling to form the stream. The water appears to be petrifying forming interesting smooth incrustations to the north-west of the bath and entering the pool.
The well had a long history of use. It had become established along the Medieval pilgrim route to Holywell and was said to have cured a number of ills. Unlike other sites its fame and attendance continued well beyond the Reformation. Francis Jones (1955) in his Holy Wells of Wales that in the 16th century an unnamed bard defends the saint and his well stating he reveres Dyfnog’s effigy, accepts his miracles, praises his miracle-working well and gives grace to all nations and cures all ills – dumbmess, deafness, y frech wenwynig. later Edward Lhuyd 1698 Parochialia records its survival of use:
“a bath, much frequented, the water heals scabs, itches etc, some say that it would cure the pox.”
A hermit’s penance!
St. Dyfnog was a hermit who is said to have lived by the spring in the 6th century. It is also claimed that the spring gained its healing properties from a regular penance the saint would do in the water. He is said to have worn a hair shirt being belted by an iron chain. Very little is known beyond this.
Two wells for the price of one
The considerable flow which in times of heavy rainfall is often a threat to the fabric of the well, in particular the remains of the arches through which the water tumbles and falls. One of the reasons for this is that as Lhuyd in 1698 records there are actually two wells. Unsurprisingly, the one above the main spring is called Ffynnon Fair (St. Mary’s Well) which flows forming some curious calcified hummocks suggesting it has petrifying properties.
Holy well or folly?
The most impressive feature of the well is the very large rectangular bath (xxx ) A structure which is far more representative of a cold plunge bath than a holy well. Together with accounts of its marble lining and surrounding statues this was clearly developed foremost as a folly it would seem presumable for Llanrhaeadr Hall.
Alternatively these were improvements to help visitors as Browne Willis in the early 18th century records:
“the famous well of St Dyfnog, much resorted to, and on that account provided with all convenience of rooms etc, for bathing, built around it.”
All sadly gone, although the remains of the walls of these may be traced nearby. However, despite the forlorn appearance of this well it is one of the few sites where this is active restoration, although the blog has not been updated since 2013, a visit in 2015 suggestions the plan to restore is still very much on the books, with plans for a £300,000 religious tourist attraction, environmental and education facility – the well now has a separate visitors book in the church! So please donate if you can to this most impressive and evocative of Welsh wells.
Compared to Tremeirchion the provenance for St. Beuno’s Well at the fascinating Clynnog Fawr is much better. After following King Cadwallon from Holywell to Caernarvon, he was offered land here by his cousin Gwyyddaint after a falling out with the King! It is said that this was his final resting place, where he built his last cell, a chapel said to have been located at the site of the church. Thus in the seventh century a monastery was established which was destroyed in a 10th century Viking raid. Nothing is left from this period the present Chapel and church dating from the sixteenth century but excavations within have revealed earlier buildings.
A substantial well
St Beuno’s Well is of a style commonly met – a quite substantial well. The spring arises to fill a large rectangular bath surrounded by stone seats. The whole enclosure being walled around and raised above the roadway presumably to prevent animals reaching it and soiling it. Although the main road now thankfully bypasses the village and the well, the roadway was and still is, the pilgrim route down the Lleyn peninsular to the sacred isle of Bardsey beyond (a fact emphasised by the presence of a stamp collection for pilgrims)
A healing well
Here we come across a more confirmed usage of the well. This was mainly for children suffering from epilepsy and rickets for also conversely was linked to curing impotency. Scrapings from the pillars in the church were mixed with the water to cure sore eyes. An even more fascinating the tradition was that the bather would then visit St. Beuno’s chapel and laid on a bed of rushes upon a stone called Beuno’s tomb. A good night’s sleep procured a cure. I was denied even an attempt at this as the Chapel a unique side chapel reached by a small walkway was locked! However, I am not sure how good my cure would be as the stone itself was only a fragment of its original being removed in 1856. The practice itself was still being undertaken long after the reformation as accounted for by Thomas Pennant:
“and I myself once saw on it (the tomb) a feather bed on which a poor paralytic from Merioneddshire had lain the whole night after undergoing the same ceremony.”
A pagan tradition?
What has been related so far is strongly suggestive of some long lost pre-Christian tradition. Indeed today by the door is a large sarsen stone possibly part as perhaps Beuno’s stone, of a megalithic monument. What is even more curious is the tradition of St Beuno’s cattle. These were cattle with ear markings which were slaughtered and offered to the saint to ensure well-being of the stock. This was later replaced by monetary offerings based on the sale of livestock and the chest, Beuno’s cyff, remains within the church. The money being used for the poor. The ‘sacrifice’ of stock is clearly very resonant of pre-Christian practises and perhaps the area was dedicated to a deity visited for such wishes.