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.
Very honoured this month to have a guest blog article by Father John Musthers, author of a new book on Cumbrian holy wells – a poorly studied area – his book will be reviewed here https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com/book-reviews/. Below is a brief biography
After a full life of Christian service, Fr John moved to Keswick, from the south coast, with his wife Jenny in 2007. They immediately found enough people to start an Orthodox parish and he was ordained priest in 2008. The parish serves the whole of Cumbria and beyond and was granted the use of Braithwaite Methodist Church in 2009. There is an Orthodox liturgy in English every Sunday at 10.30 followed by food and time together for much of the afternoon. We welcome young families and children. The parish is thriving and is becoming known for its energy, warmth, and welcome. Fr John is a keen observer of the continuity between the early church in the British Isles and coming of Orthodoxy to Britain again in recent times. His passion is the traditon of lived holiness down the ages. He has written a book about the saints and their relevance today. He has extensively explored ancient Christian sites in the UK and Ireland. His latest interest has been the Holy Wels of North Cumbria.
My introduction to holy wells came about in Ireland. I had some free time over there so I went to look for holy sites. This was a jaw dropping experience to find much of Ireland’s rich heritage of monasteries, churches, holy wells and more. With my wife we journeyed all over, in time visiting most of Ireland twice. Ireland is reputed to have had 3000 wells. We saw many big ones, little ones, nice ones, and spooky ones. My favourite is at Kyle in Co Tipperary. It is well off the beaten track. You have to negotiate a bull, water that bubbles, trees with clouties, and under the trees many crosses from a mysterious unknown monastery.
Back home in Cumbria we started to notice wells until it got to the point where we knew of at least 70 – many more than earlier tallies. So we felt people ought to know. We have published ‘Springs of Living Water’, in paperback and hardback. The hardback came out expensive, but I believe it to be a gem.
St Helen’s, Great Asby, is the well with the best flow of water. St Michael’s, Arthuret, is a big well and a very old one. St Andrews, Kirkandrewes, (on the front cover) has outlived its church but still makes a pretty flow of water by the footpath down past the churchyard. The most popular of wells is lkely to be that at Caldbeck on the riverbank behind the church.
I always like to find those difficult to discover: St Michael’s, once of Addingham, now in Lazonby, has to be another favourite with loads of atmosphere underneath trees, rather like Powdonnet well in Morland; St Catherines in a remote spot near Boot in Eskdale; the well at Staffield is little known, hidden away in the middle of a very very large field. In this category also must come the well in the bottom of Schawk quarry which had a history going back to Roman times. Many places have lost their wells and are known only by name: but there is one almost perfect well – Grange Hall in Great Asby with its canopy still in place.
What’s it all about? We don’t get very far without facing the deeper questions. Where do they come from? What are they for? Where do we come in the scale of history? It is a wise man who does not jump in too quickly to answer these questions. But here are some thoughts and reflections.
Human beings have to drink and wash from time to time. Our ancestors valued wells, streams and rivers because of this practical need of water. But such is the ‘magic’ of water they, like us, reflected on the matter and noticed how some wells had something more: a sense of mystery, a sense of awe, a sense of the ‘holy’. We need not doubt this for we can feel it too. In this context the leaving of a gift is a natural thing to do. We all have our explanations. We do not have to be condescending. We only need to sit at Castlerigg Stone Circle in Keswick to realise this magnificent piece of work is a testimony to man’s consumng search for the spiritual, the divine, for ‘God’.
Kneeling by the pool of water at Kyle we become aware of the bubbles coming up through the limestone. Instantly comes to mind the cripple at the Pool of Siloam who, when the pool was disturbed, could get no one to take him to the water. Here was a connection across 2000 years, between an event in Jerusalem to a moment in Kyle, of revelation, of meaning, of healing, if you believe it. Could not the Celt have made the same connection?
Would he not believe he had found a greater salvation?
Just up the road from our house is Crosthwaite parish church. Here, in a likely tale told by an Englishman called Bede, about the itinerant bishop St Kentigern (I prefer the more intimate name of Mungo, ‘my dear one’) who placed his cross in a clearing and began to speak. From all accounts (as shown in the contemporary Life of St Cuthbert) there were many in those days who were thirsty. They went down into the pool, or stream or river and were baptised. Seek out the old British churches, of which there are several in north Cumbria, and look for the water. I guarantee you will find it.
The water was blessed, the water was used again and again. The faithful built little churches by the spot or even over it. They remembered the day when the Saint had visited them. They remembered the name of Christ and the name of the Trinity, though in some places it didn’t catch on and people went on in their old convictions. The Christian felt connected to the saint even when, as they believed, he went from them and was alive with Christ in heaven; and they found he still prayed for them.
Christ, the Church, the saints, the wells and baptism were the foundation of a new culture. Holy Wells flourished and abounded. If we go anywhere in Wales or Cornwall we will be astonished by their number. The large wall map on my wall of Cumbria tells the same story.
As we all know they came under attack, many were destroyed, left to neglect. For a long time people remembered the old places. They still went on the Saints days to trade their wares, to enjoy the entertainments and went home grateful for another ‘holi-day’ temporarily lifting the heavy burden of life long ago.
Some wells got a new lease of life by the Spas when the cultured ‘took the waters’. Cumbria has many of them. Now people go to them for a nice weekend, and the well is, if anything, just a curiosity.
Our church in Braithwaite has started to bless the waters again; and new believers plunge into the cold waters of the beck. We have a large container of blessed water inside the church for use on local saints days, of St Bega, St Mungo, St Cuthbert and St Herbert. We also bless our homes with the water.
In effect, we have made a new holy well!
It can be purchased now follow the link
Springs of Living Waters
Well which well is it?
This is without doubt the most famous site of all holy wells and indeed Christianity in the county, now the main well is perhaps a modern one (we’ll explore its provenance below).) but in the ruins of its famed Abbey are ‘Wishing Wells’ clearly holy wells, the more likely location of the 1061, vision of Mary by Richeldis de Faverches,, who built a replica of the Holy House where a spring arose. The site became a major pilgrimage centre and its waters were said to be good for curing headaches and stomach complaints. If these are the original site, after Reformation, they denigrated to mere wishing wells.
Howeverr, most attention quite rightly is directed to the well enclosed in the modern Anglican shrine. A site which now could be classed as one of the most active holy wells in the country, Our Lady’s Well. This is the central focus of modern veneration at Walsingham. Its history is difficult however. It was during the digging for a new shrine in the 1930s.The shrine needed a well and this was convenient Consequent excavations revealed did suggest that this well was Saxon and thus as near the site of the original Holy House thought to be the original shrine. However this is difficult to prove. Now enclosed in a modern shrine, above this well an effigy of Our Lady with infant Jesus, is placed in as a centre piece of this modern arched alcove. Local belief suggests that an underground conduit connects these wells to the Anglican well of Our Lady, their source.
Little Walsingham was once the greatest shrine in Europe, with commoners and kings all following the many pilgrim paths to the shrine of ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’. It had a sacred image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a phial of her milk, and many other spurious relics, not to mention the two miraculous wells in the priory garden.
In 1061 the Lady Richeldis de Faveraches, wife of a Norman lord of the manor, is said to have had a vision at Walsingham in which the Virgin Mary appeared to her, took her in spirit to the ‘Sancta Casa’ – the home of Christ in Nazareth – and commanded her to build in Norfolk an exact replica. Aided by angels, the shrine was built of wood and later encased in stone, the site being ordained by the welling up of two clear streams at the behest of Mary. Rumours began to spread that Mary herself had fled there before the threat of invasion, and then that the chapel was the Sancta Casa itself, transported there by angels.
A priory was built there in the early 12th century, which the scholar and theologian Desiderius Erasmus visited in 1511, writing in his ‘Colloquy on Pilgrimage’:
“Before the chapel is a shed, under which are two wells full to the brink; the water is wonderfully cold, and efficacious in curing pains in the head & stomach. They affirm that the spring suddenly burst from the earth at the command of the most holy Virgin”.
The wishing wells
These are circular wells and a square stone bath can be found near an isolated remnant of Norman archway in the priory ruins, in the grounds of a house called Walsingham Abbey. The wells are most noted nowadays for being wishing wells. If you remain totally silent within about 10 feet of the water, you should kneel first at one well, then at the other, and make a wish as you drink – but tell no-one what you wish for. Committing one error in the ritual is said to be fatal.
Another version mentions a stone between the wells on which one must kneel with their right knee bare, then put one hand in each well up to the wrist, and drink as much of the water as you can hold in your palms. Provided your wishes are never spoken aloud, they will be fulfilled within the year. On my visit I was keen to try it out…but found the wells covered by metal grills.
More on Norfolk’s holy wells in the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk coming in 2017.
Speak of St Nectan and often his glen is recalled amongst those interested in water lore, however if we travel in the neighbouring Cornwall two possibly more significant and ancient sites can be found where he is the patron saint.
Who was St. Nectan?
It is not exactly clear who he was. A 6th Century Welshmen or Irishmen. We know through his Vita that he was a hermit and subsequent martyr, who may have been related to the chieftan Brychan from which many saints claimed descendency, one of 24 children. Possibly a native of Wales or Ireland, he is best known through legends. He lived as a hermit in Devonshire, England, founding churches there and in Cornwall, England.
A 12th century Gothan manuscript notes that as a hermit he lived in a remote valley near a spring. He is said to have been helpful in recovering a swineherder’s pigs and once had to convert from thieves of his cows. However, other robbers murdered him, of which more in a moment, and where his blood was spilled, foxgloves grew. His murderer is said to have driven made. Even after his death, he is said to have cured a boy of the plague and helped King Athelstan at the 937 Battle of Brunanburgh. His cult continued to be popular throughout the middle ages.
St Nectan’s Well, Welcombe
Easily found by the roadside just over the Devon boarder is this small stone well house which was restored around 1899 according to Baring-Gould. The spring fills a small stone trough, but any legends and traditions associated with the site are unrecorded, although it was used for baptism. There is a little niche above the doorway which often has an icon but may have originally been constructed for a candle. Of course this was probably the well of Welcombe of which record is made in King Alfred’s Will of 881 AD and as such is probably the oldest holy well in the county.
St Nectan’s Well, Hartland
This is perhaps the best recorded of the two local St. Nectan’s Wells. It is a similar stone well house except with an more pronounced pitch roof covers this spring although its source is often kept locked by two wooden doors and a grill. It is difficult to work out the age of the structure but it may only be a few hundred years old. However, this is probably the oldest surviving site in the country. There is evidence of a 7th century Celtic monastery at the site and indeed this survived until the Reformation
This well is associated with a number of legend. It is said that when attacked by robbers, his head was struck off and he picked it up and walked to this site, although another site claims that story. An alternative story is that a spring arose where the head fell – a common motif.
Another unrelated piece of folklore, perhaps dating back to its pre-Christian origins is also told. It is said that the Lord of the Manor asked for some water from the well and it was collected in a large pot. However, the water proved impossible to boil despite the amount of fuel used. Hearing the problems, the Lord informed the servants that she look into the pot and see a giant eel. The eel was taken back to the well and released and subsequently the pot began to boil. Another common motif which suggests the existence of a protective spirit of the well. Sadly with the door often locked it is difficult to look for.
The water was used for baptisms by the church and was associated with a charming custom of which information is difficult to find out. On the saint’s main feast day, the 17th June, local children would process from the church carrying foxgloves and lay them at the well. One presumes that some sort of service was done at the well as well. When this ceased is unclear but certainly in the early 2000s as the picture above may show the remains of the custom. It is shame that such a delightful custom has died out and it seems very appropriate to mark such an important site with such ceremony.
Like the other eastern monotheist religions, Islam has incorporated ‘well worship’ into their cannon of faith and indeed there are many parallels. Most significantly perhaps is the way in which this worship, like Christianity, has fallen out of favour. Indeed, the Quran strictly forbids the worship of such sites for the virtues alone which is interesting and has meant these sites, which doubtless in some cases have a pre-Islamic history, have been firmly associated with the founders of this faith.
Islam states that no one can own water, as understandably, it was seen as a sacred gift, similarly the Quran states any who pollute should be severely punished. These views were understandable considering the faith’s distribution in the dry and arid parts of the Middle East. The greatest example of this of course being the ZamZam Well, in the holiest city of all Mecca, associated with Prophet Abraham’s wife and son, Haijar and Ishmael. Tradition accounts that whilst looking for water for her son and dying of thirst, she ran seven times between the hills to find it. Finally they were saved when a spring miraculously flowed from the desert sand. Abraham discovering their survival travelled to Mecca and he and Ishmael built or rebuilt the Kaaba to celebrate the miracle. Modern pilgrims remember this search in the Hage.
The worship of springs became in the 10th and 11th century interwoven into the celebration of Islamic saint worship. Some interesting parallels can be seen between European Christian springs and those of Islam. An example being the Auliya spring, which means holy in the local language of Bashkira is said to have arisen after locals buried three local Islamic missionaries on Mount Aushtau mountain. Even more interesting is the fact that the spring is more powerful in May, the 15th, a date possibly significantly close to old May Day, with pilgrimages akin somehow to Spaw Sunday and others descended perhaps from the ancient Beltaine. Indeed, the water is said to flow only for 30 days.
The placing of rags is also present at Islamic sites. The hanging of rags on trees associated with springs abound in Iran according to Ilʹi͡a Pavlovich Petrushevskiĭ (1985) Islam in Iran. Pilgrims in the Turkish village of Telekioi, would after filling a keg of water from a spring that rises near a saint’s grave or Tekke would hang a piece of cloth on a thorn tree over it. These vestiges of tradition clearly predate their present affiliations, explaining why some sections of the faith ignore or actively discourage. Yet like the well worship of the Christians – such activities run deep.
An indication of the ancient origin of the springs of Islam can be indicated by cross pollination with older religions in the regions Islam colonised, akin to that seen in Christian areas. More often the support of such traditions would be in line with Sufism, a more moderate form of Islam, which accepts the recognition of saints and by doing so appears to have incorporated pre-Islamic forms of worship. One clear example is that of Alexander the Great who is reported found a spring created by God behind Mount Qaf, Chishmah-i-Ayyub, Well of Life. Its water was said to have been able to grant eternal life to those who drank it and was whiter than milk, colder than ice, sweeter than honey, softer than butter and sweeter smelling than musk. The spring lay in a land called the Land of Darkness and it is reported that one of Alexander’s men, Khidr led his army into it and found the spring. He bathed in the water, drank it and duly became immortal. However, when he attempted to show Alexander the spring he failed to find it and it has not been found since! Another version states that Khidr became immortal as the Green Man as he fell into the well and appears to Sufi adepts.
Returning to the ZamZam well it is interesting that Abd Al-Muttalib, grandfather of Mohammed (pbuh), cleaned the well and found two golden gazelles and a number of swords. It is also thought that by bathing in the spring a woman can break with heathen gods, but an impure person dare not approach the spring. Baptism is of course a significant use of springs, although that term is of course a Christian one. It is worth noting that in the Yezidi faith which has Sufi elements has the use of the Kānīyā Spī or the White Spring for Mor kirin and that on the 23rd September a tree trunk would be immersed into the spring head.
It is interesting to end of the following quote referring to the Chak Chak Spring, (images here) a site sacred to Iranian Zoroastrians, but clearly of significance to the country’s Muslim community:
“A 32-year-old Muslim came here as a last resort when he was dying from leukaemia, I was not sure we should let a Muslim in but he insisted and spent the night here,” said Goshtasb Belivani, a priest of Iran’s ancient pre-Islamic religion.During the night he was visited by a beautiful woman dressed in green who gave him sherbet to drink….. For the last three months, since being given the all clear from his doctor, the young man has been a regular visitor to the shrine.”
Jamkaran is a modern shrine including a holy well in a tradition akin to Marian shrines of Catholicism. Here a well behind the mosque is said to hide Imam Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam and that since the mid 1990s, pilgrims tie small strings in a knot around the grids covering the holy well which they hope will be received by him. The site in Iran is a clear example of an increase in the popularity of such worship again paralleling that occurring in many Christianised parts of the globe.
Water worship despite the prohibitions appears still to have some significance in these regions and I would welcome any more information on them.
Holyrood Park has a number of notable sites. St Margaret’s Well is a strange and possibly unique hybrid. The spring itself is a holy well, called The Well of the Holy Rood or St. David’s Well and dates from 1198, the well head was but the well house was re-erected from St Margaret’s Well at Restalrig. This was when this site became derelict once land nearby was to be built over by the North British Railway depot. This resulted in the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland removing the structure brick by brick and resurrecting it over the Holy rood site.
The spring itself of course is the reason why the park is called Holy rood, for legend has it that King David after mass decided to go hunting in the area and was thrown from his horse by a giant stag which was then carried the king, him holding for dear life onto a cross between its antlers until it stopped at the spring. In thanks for his deliverance he built the Abbey of Holy Rood there.
The well house is a delightful structure, Gothic in nature and dating from the fifteenth century with an internal width of sixth feet and around five feet in height with a central pier with a carved hear which is provided with a spout through which the water flows.
There is something delightfully mysterious about St Anthony’s Well. Despite being traipsed across by hundreds of people on a daily basis, this spring is still difficult to find, the very essence of being pixyled. It can only really be seen from the ruins of chapel said to be a hermitage for it arises beneath a large boulder and fills a small trough. I cannot find any information about its origin but it is said that on May morning ‘youths and maidens after wash their faces in the dew on Arthur’s seat nearby come down and drink from the well.’ However every time I’ve seen it is has been dry.
In Liberton, perhaps in the most incongruous of situations, a Toby Carvery, but at least it is now easy to find and get to. This is the Balm Well or St. Katherine’s Well, a delightful little pitched roofed well house, which once had small pinnacles on its structure but these had gone when I visited and looks a little forlorn. However, this recent bit of neglect is nothing compared to what happened in the 17th century when Roundheads filled it with stones and defaced it. The present structure dates from 1563, but the site has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries by the Scottish kings, until James VI built this well house. Its waters are said to have arise from Queen Margaret dropping some oil accidently which she had obtained from Mount Carmel or Sinai and the spring arose. The waters thought to good for rheumatism is still oily, its origins thought to have derived from coal strata.
The final spring, is in the Dean village part of the city beside the Water of Leith, being the imposing St. Bernard’s Well, a temple like building with a statue of Hygeia and a pump room. Although it is said to be named after the Abbot of Clairvaux who is said to have drunk here preaching the Second crusade. However, this may be a back derived story as it was latterly discovered in 1760 and in 1789, Lord Gardenstone erected this structure over it and it became a popular spa.
The patron saint of shepherds is saint with a strong association with February, the 3rd being his feast day. He was much celebrated in sheep areas such as Kent and this was by virtue of his gruesome martyrdom involving iron combs, which resemble a sheep shearer’s combs. Bromley, itself, has had a long association for popular lore suggests that the Parish church was also once dedicated to him. The earliest known connection between the two was during the reign of Henry VI, with St. Blaise’s Day fairs. It was also a common practice for local blasphemers to give homage to the saint’s image at Bromley. One recorded example is by a Thomas Ferby, who in 1456, promoted a clandestine marriage in St. Paul’s Cray Church. He was excommunicated for this act, and had to present a wax taper of a pound weight at the image here.
In the town he surprisingly had a well, one of the few dedicated to him, St. Blaise’s Well (TQ 408 692). Hasted (1797-1801) notes:
“There is a well, in the Bishop’s garden, called St. Blaize’s Well, which, having great resort to it anciently, on account of its medicinal virtues, had an oratory attached dedicated to the saint. It was particularly frequented at Whitsuntide on account of forty days enjoined penance, to such as would visit this chapel, and offer up their orisons in it, and the three holy days of Pentecost. This oratory falling to ruin at the Reformation, the well too, came to be disused, and the site of both in process of time became totally forgotten.”
Hasted (1797-1801) continues to record a discovery in 1754, by a Rev. Harwood, at the Bishops Garden near the old palace ponds, of a chalybeate spring. This is believed by most authorities as the rediscovery of the well. Its discovery and qualities was detailed by the surgeon Thomas Reynolds:
“It was discovered in September 1754, by the Rev Mr. Harward, his Lordship’s domestic Chaplain, by means of yellow ochery sediment remaining in the track of a small current leading from the spring to the corner to the moat, with the waters of which it used to mix. It is very probable that this spring was formerly frequented, for in digging about it there were the remains of steps leading down to it made of oak plank, which appeared as if they had lain underground a great many years.
When his Lordship was acquainted that the Water of this spring had been examined and found to be a good Chalybeate, he, with great humanity, immediately ordered it to be secured from the mixture of other waters, by skilful workman, and enclosed in a circular brick work (stone work) like the top of a well; in hopes that it might be beneficial, as a medicine, to such as should think fit to drink it. This order was speedily and effectually executed, and the Water not only secured but the access to it made very commodious to the Public, by the generous care, and under the inspection of Mr. Wilcox his Lordship’s Son. And their benevolent intentions have already been answered with success: for great numbers of people, of all conditions, but chiefly middling and poorer sort, drink daily of this excellent Water, many of whom have been remarkably relieved from various infirmities and diseases, which were not afflicting but dangerous.”
Hasted (1797-1801), gives the discovery of the wooden steps as evidence that this is St. Blaise’s Well. Whatever its origin, the waters were apparently good enough as to encourage Reynolds to retire in the Bromley neighbourhood, to take its waters, rather than return to his earlier resort, Tunbridge Wells. A latter description by Hone (1827-8) refers to the well as the ‘Bishop’s Well’, describing it as a trickling through an orifice, at the moat or lake’s side. A contemporary sketch shows it covered with a conical thatched roof, supported by six pillars, with water arising in a circular basin, this is also shown in a photo in Horsburgh (1939). Sadly, in 1887, a snowstorm resulted in the roofs destruction and the then owner Mr. Coles Child replaced it with a tiled one in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, its flow was lost.
Although, commonly accepted that the chalybeate spring and St. Blaise’s Well, are one and the same, there is some element of doubt. For in the late 1800s, these doubts were fostered by correspondence in the Bromley Record, which stated that nothing in the history books could be found to suggest that they were the same. A site at the ‘end of a large upper pond now drained off, in springy ground, not far south of the huge oak tree blown down about three years since in a paddock in the front of the palace’ was favoured. At this site about four courses of circular brickwork could be seen. Indeed, Wilson (1797), a local historian believed that it: “.. was 200 yards NW of the mineral spring in a field near the road with eight oak trees in a cluster, on an elevated spot of the ground adjoining.”
Latter Dunkin (1815), quoting this work stated that this structure: “..appears to have been originally designed to supply the adjoining moat.” Horsburgh visited the ‘brick reservoir’, in 1916, and found it was below the present ground level, roofless, and dry. It measured ten feet long, four feet wide, with a depth of eight to nine feet. The plan was rectangular, and although the upper part of the brickwork was of no considerable age, those below looked older, and perhaps were covered with moss. Coles Child pointed out that one outlet was in communication with springs, and the water flowed through a pipe into the uppermost of the three ponds to the north within palace ground. This lay in a direct line between the moat and Widmore Road, the uppermost being filled in before he acquired tenancy, and by then only a depression marked its site. He had filled in the remaining two. These ponds were believed to be paradise ponds, corresponding to four fish ponds referred to in a 1646 Parliamentary Survey of Bromley Palace.
Whether this other site was the real St. Blaise’s Well is difficult to say; especially considering that it has now has been lost. Perhaps, if archaeological evidence on the location of the oratory could be found, this would shed light on the exact site. Popular opinion states that the chalybeate spring and holy well, are one and the same, and that the other site is just a conduit and of no significance. It is worth noting the unusual small building that now sits by the old entrance to the Palace grounds. Cox (1905) describes this as a chapel built in the Eighteenth Century. This hollow building with a Romanesque-Norman archway and a shield showing the St. Blaise is an estate folly, fashioned after interest in St. Blaise’s Well. Today, this building stands rather forlornly beside the entrance to the sprawling municipal council offices. These have swallowed up nearly all the old Palace Grounds. Sadly only the fabric of St. Blaise’s Well remains, a large round red brick structure, in the centre of which is a pipe, through which presently pool water is being recycled. Beside which a sign noting its brief history. It’s a sad end, but at least something is there to remember it.
Take from forthcoming Holy wells and healing springs of Kent
A visit to Conisbrough, noted for its Norman castle should include a visitor to its holy wells. That is holy wells, as the town can claim two sites! Although according to the Conisborough website there appears to be a denial of this.
That which is called the Holywell or rather Holywell spring is found at the edge of Holywell road and the A630 Sheffield Road. It is a spring which appears to arise further up the hill in an area now covered in scrub and inaccessible. However, a very copious spring erupts at the base of the hill and as such has been the subject of various complaints. Despite this it remains and fills a large semi-circular pool surrounded by low walling. The spring was noted for its healthy waters and was used for brewing beer by Nicholsons Bros Brewery and one assumes some of the stone work dates from this. Little else is recorded of the site
Nearer the castle, and although dry it is more substantial is another site variously called the Town well or Well of St Francis. This is as Innocent (1914) describes it as:
“Covered by a curious little building very medieval-looking with ita chamfered plinth and steeply slanted roof”
Who the St Francis is, is unclear but Alport ( 1898) records the local tradition which states that he was a local holy man and probably not a true saint and it is interesting that a number of churches are dedicated to a St. Francis in Yorkshire. Interestingly, though the date of creation of the well is recorded and quite late compared to other local saints perhaps. It is said that in 1320 -1321 the village was suffering from a particularly terrible drought and this St. Francis, said to be an old and wise man was sought for his advice. He suggested that the local people cut a willow tree from Willow Vale and then as the people sang psalms and hymns he lead them through the church and priory grounds to the site of the well. At the spot St Francis then struck is and not only did a spring arise and followed for the next 582 years (for its sadly dry now) but the tree took root.
Sadly this tree has either died or was dug up but the well continued under the name of the Town well up until the early 1900s when mains water arrived. It is possible that the legend suggests the holy man may have been, in fact, Clark (1986) believes the story recalls a Pagan priest and that the legend was a legacy of Conisbrough’s pre-Christian past; certainly the reference to a willow indicates a water diviner.
The other area in Conisbrough where St Francis the older man is said to have done a similar ritual and found water is at a place called The Holy Well Spring of St Francis. In 2003 this holy well was restored by historian Bernard Pearson with the aid of Community service and a special service was held at St Peter’s church attended by the High Sheriff of South Yorkshire who than processed to the site, erroneously as it happens in a re-enactment that was associated with the town well. Indeed a plaque at the site makes this error clear.
Allport, C.H., (1898) History of Conisborough
Clark, S., (1986) The Holy well of Conisborough Source Old Series 5.
Innocent, C.F (1914-18) Conisborough and its castle Trans of Hunter Archeaology Society.
on the re-dedication of the well.