In a previous post, I promised a return to Norfolk…I unfortunately haven’t physically been there but there are still some sites of which I can describe from my original survey.
Located in a private garden is one of the least known holy wells is those found opposite the church called St. Botolph’s Springs (TF 721 219). It is absent from Harte’s work and I have been unable to find its origin. According to local tradition it apparently named after a local saint who baptised converts in them. Little appears to be recorded of him, but clearly the church was founded to Christianise the springs considering its proximity. These appear to be two in number and now flow to fill a large pool in the garden of the house opposite the church called The Springs. There is a small section of stone walling just above the first spring and the spring itself bubbles from underneath this through the chalk. The second spring arises similarly from under a ledge nearer to the church. Whether there are any old fragments of this site is unclear, especially as there appear to be no authorities to confirm that the truth behind the local saint.
Arises in a small copse of bushes on the edge of a field is St Mary’s Well (TM 021 781) whose waters were thought to be good for eyes. It was recently been tidied up with a new fence erected around it although it is a simple spring. There as a number of small stones lying around suggesting a possible structure.
“…to the west of the church is St. Margaret’s Well, at which, in the times of popery, the people diverted themselves on that saint’s day with cakes and ale, music and dancing; alms and offerings were brought, and vows made: all this was called Well worship”.
Here is a confusing one! Reports state that site still arises beside a circular pond fills a small foot wide basin beneath a small obelisk. Water flows sluggishly from this structure but clearly contributes to the pond beside it. However sadly it is not for the said well is now further east where the road is and buried. The oblelisk is spring fed but not the same spring sadly.
East Dereham boasts one of Norfolk’s best and most interesting holy wells. This is St. Withburga’s Well (TF 988 134) which arises behind the church through a flint and stone archway in front of the well basin is a stone coffin lid. The site is protected by railings and since the 1990s there has been a well dressing although not in a Derbyshire style. In 1757 there was an attempt to convert the spring into a minor spa, although never referred to as such. A bath house was constructed over the well and this was restored in 1786 and 1792-3 the latter being undertaken by local man Sir John Fenn and his committee established to repair and maintain the structure. This resulted in a brick built classical building being erected over the well. However, this was finally removed in the 1850s by the Rev Benjamin Armstrong who opposed the structure.
The well is associated with Saxon St. Withburga, daughter of King Annas who died in c 743. The spring is said to have arisen after the monks of Ely Cathedral stole the saint’s relics.
Chambers appears to suggest that there is another St. Withburga’s Well (TF 986 133) some distance from the churchyard but gives no further details. This would appear to have been that at Old Becclesgate where it lay in the garden, however in the cellar which shows evidence of the building being probable monastery site was a supposed well said to be a holy well. Neither site appear to exist.
Records show that St Lawrence’s Well (TG 228 089) in the time of Edward I was a common well and probably served Fullers Hole, where cloth was cleansed and thickened. In 1547 the Court granted the parishioners the lane from the High Street to the well, together with the said well, on the condition that they erect the door at the south end of the lane and keep it open in the day, and shut up securely at night. However, in 1576, Robert Gibson was given a grant of the said lane, or entry, and the well, and had thus to provide at his own charge access to the well. It states:
‘He shall bring the water from the said well in a cock of lead, into the public street, for the ease of the common people, and shall maintain the same.’
In latter times this site was known as St Lawrence’s Pump, and following inscriptions had been applied:
“This Water here cavght, In Sorte as yowe se. From a Spring is brovghte, Threskore Foot and thre. Gybson hath it sowghte, From Saynt Lawrens Wel.”
The site appears in drawings by Cotman (1818) and Willis (1885). Suffling (1887) notes that:
“A few years since, Mr Harry Bullard, a brewer, and well-known patron of his city, transformed it into a public drinking fountain.”
After a number of years of looking rather sorry for itself this is without doubt the most splendid of the wells in this survey, resplendent in its guilt and painted brick work.
Dorset is a rich county for holy well and healing spring explorers, many years ago I did some field work there. These are some of my notes.
St Candida’s or St. Wite’s Well, Morecombelake
Long overgrown and forgotten, this is a significant site associated as it is with one of the few surviving church shrines which has both foramina (holes for closer contact to the relics) and presence of the saint. Much has been discussed over the origins of saint, who is generally called St. Wite, but is more likely to be a local saint who probably utilised the spring. This is emphasised by a report by a traveller in the 17th century who recorded:
“St. White the Virgin Martyr, whose well the inhabitants will shewe you not farre off in the side of an Hill, where she lived in Prayer and Contemplation.”
Its waters were used for eye complaints and today the spring is clear and flowing. Christine Waters in her book Who was St. Wite? (1980) states:
“After venerating the shrine, our pilgrim made his way to the saint’s well, about a mile away at Morcombelake. The waters of St. Wite’s Well enjoyed a reputation as late as the 1930’s as being “a sovereign cure for sore eyes”. They were said to be most efficacious when the sun’s first rays lit upon them. Sore eyes, were of course, a constant source of discomfort to medieval man, living as he did in low cottages from which the smoke did not escape properly. Lead holy water bottles or “ampullae” were filled here and taken home for later applications.
The wild periwinkles that carpet nearby Stonebarrow Hill every spring, are still known locally as “St. Candida’s Eyes.”
It flows into what is possibly one of the smallest stone basins I have ever seen for a springhead and it is not surprising that it was lost for many years! The survival of the site is secured as this one of the few holy wells on National Trust land.
Holy Well, Hermitage
Little appears to be known of this well but its name is significant deriving as it does from probably from a hermit long forgotten who probably used the spring. It is known that Augustian Friars established a community here in the 14th century. One assumes the well is dedicated to Our Lady as the church is called St Mary’s. It is interesting that a local place was called Remedy on the old maps. The well fills a stone chamber by the edge of the wood above the church.
Leper’s Well, Lyme Regis
Lyme Regis has much commend itself and it also claims in a public path close to a footpath a quite substantial well. This is the Leper well which is so called in its association with a leper hospital dedicated to the Holy Spirit. The water arises beneath a mossy and algae covered arch and flows into a rectangular basin. This may be the same as St. Andrew’s Well associated with a chapel in the town of the same name. This well is mentioned in a number of medieval documents
St Edward’s the Martyr’s well, Corfe
One cannot fail to miss the grand ruins of this mighty fortess, now despite being broken and breached its very position as a sentinel to the picturesque Corfe it remains the iconic and impressive place. What is easier to miss and less well known is the well which lies within the ruins.
The story tells that here the body of the Saxon boy king who reigned from 975, after the death of his father Edgar. Although he was the eldest he was not officially recognised and this issue appears to have precipitated his demise, being thrown down this well in 978. Who planned the murder is unclear, history has always accused the mother of Ethelred the Unready, Aelfhryth Edward’s step mother, as she had more to gain. When the deed was revealed, by a pillar of fire from heaven, and the body retrieved it was found to be incorruptible and was enshrined with great grandeur first at Wareham and then at nearby Shaftesbury Abbey. The water thereafter was thought to be curative and was particularly good for eye complaints and the ague.
When I visited there was no sign of water and all there was to mark it was a depression. Whether this is the exact well or not is of course unclear the date of the indeed long predates the ruins. It is possible that the story hides some pagan motif and so is its similarity to that of St. Kenelem is interesting.
It is interesting to note that the church also dedicated to the saint had a well dressing ceremony in 2008.
If you park in the first car park at Greenaway Country Park past the lake, and then walk along the road taking the footpath on the left around the lake, continue until one crosses a bridge, just below the Warden’s Tower taking a path which follows a small stream, past a pond and then continue until there is a bridge on the left and just after this is a path on the right you will reach Gawton Well (SJ 898 555) voted one of the most mystical places and certainly one of the most atmospheric of Staffordshire ancient wells is found on the remains of the Kynpersely Estate.
The spring fills at first an elliptical stone basin, then a small rectangular basin and then a larger one which could have formed a bath. There is a semi-circular stone just after this and then flows through a number of large rocks forming a stream. The site has an excellent arrangement the juxtaposition between the man-made and the natural.
A druid grove?
Perhaps what makes this well one of the most evocative and interesting is the fact that it arises in an oval grove of yew trees. Some folklorists and New age Antiquarians have seen this as being evidence of some pagan origin of the well and although it is interesting that the site is unconverted to the Christian faith. However, one must be careful. Firstly the trees do not look that old and secondly the presence of a nearby Warden’s Tower, a folly suggests, that this is perhaps a 18th century piece of antiquarianism.
A hermit’s house?
This suggestion of the site being a folly may be justified by the presence of Gawton’s Stone. This is just up from the spring, being a large stone supported by three other stones. Some antiquarians identified erroneously this as either a druidic altar or megalithic structure (it would be impossible to lift the structure). However it is here that legendarily a hermit lived called Gawton who used the well. Often landowners would employ a hermit to add some romance to the estate, although the stone does not particularly look like a comfortable place. Certainly local tradition states that the man came from Knypersley Hall in the seventeenth century, although the house is 18th century and no name is recorded as living there of any note! The house itself dates from the 12th century.
Plot (1686) states that:
“There are many waters such as the water of the well at Gawton Stone…which has some reputation for the cure of the King’s evil..”
The King’s evil was a skin complaint generally called scrofula which was only thought to be cured by the touch of the reigning monarch. Now rarely do I try out springs but at this time my little boy was suffering with eczema and having tried all sorts of creams I said flippantly try some of the well’s water. I collected it from near the source in a drinking bottle, it felt unusually silky to the skin, and applied some to an area of dry peeling skin on his cheek. Remarkably by the time we had walked from the well to the car the area have healed itself rather miraculously. I only wished I had collected some more to use later, although the area on his face disappeared for good….
In all Gawton’s Well deserves to be more well known, a magical site of which my only clue to its existence before reaching it was a circle on the OS! A site which may reveal its secrets with greater research which I plan to undertake whilst preparing for the Holy wells of Staffordshire.