Blog Archives

In search of rag wells: St Kenelm’s Well Clent a photo archive

St Kenelm’s Well is not a tradition rag well location (although there is circumstantial evidence of the custom in Worcestershire) and the nature of the clooties left suggest a pagan association perhaps. Below is a photo archive of a visit in 2011.

Prayer flags at the well

Ribbons, bells and fake flowers the most common cloottie

Some more traditional cotton handkerchiefs

The occurrence of similar rag colours suggests repeat visitors

One a number of socks attached  to  branchesMotorcycle glove  perhaps  in  thanks  for a safe journey  

Cheshire’s very own Archbishop of Canterbury and his holy well – Plemstall’s St Plemund’s Well

Found down a quiet lane, called Plemstall Lane near the church, is this well named after 9th century saint and Archbishop of Canterbury. The earliest record of the well is in 1302 but doubtlessly the settlement itself derived from Plemstow and supposedly where the saint lived a hermit life on a supposed island on which the church now stands, the spring arising at the base of its cliff. Plemstall taking its name from the saint.

Who was St Plegmund?

Rotha Mary Clay in her 1914 Hermit and anchorites of England states that Plegmund, an Eremite (lived) in the Isle of Chester’. He rose to a position of high office, being promoted Prinate of all England during King Alfred 871-899 AD being a learned individual noted for his writings and translations. He travelled to Rome to be consecrated the 19th Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Formosus. Following the death of King Alfred, Plegmund crowned Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder. He continued to be Archbishop of Canterbury until his death in 923 AD and is buried in Canterbury Cathedral.  There is no evidence of his association with the well as sadly, the earliest reference to the well is a 1301 quit rent.

The well today

The present structure was erected by Mr Osborne Aldis in 1907 is curbed with stones with steps down to the water. The site was dedicated by the Venerable E. Barber, Archdeacon of Chester, on 11 November 1907. A Latin couplet was placed on the stone supposedly reading:

“Here, as in days when Alfred erst was King, Baptismal water flows from Plegmund’s spring.”

Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews reported that in 1995 a survey of the well was carried out. This failed to find the slabs in added in 1907 but revealed that the well was a square stone-lined pit which had on either side two large slabs. The bottom of the well was a ceramic pipe inserted at a later date and there was water covering the first step as there was when I first visited. In 2002 a substantial wrought iron structure bearing the saint’s name and date was erected making the site easy to find.

Continuing celebration

As noted by the signage, site was supposedly used for baptisms and was called the church well or Christening well, and is mentioned in Churchwardens’ accounts, although this may be another well. In the 1990s rags, or clootties, have been placed around the site, and attached to a hawthorn overhanging the tree. However, there does not appear to be any folklore or historical reference to this activity at this site and it has probably been transferred by those in the know! However, there is a tradition of hanging rags at Alderley Edge in the same county so it may be traditional. According to Richards (1947), that:

“on Sunday, August 14th, 1938, the Saint’s Day, a large body of Roman Catholics made a pilgrimage on foot to the well.”

This was probably started by the curate at St Werburgh’s Chester at the time, Canon Frank Murphy.   Canon Frank Murphy was clearly highly devoted to the saint, the church had stained glass windows of St Plegmund and the church hall opened by the Canon in 1971 is also dedicated to him and has stained glass featuring him. Curates Frs Gerry Courell and Peter Sharrocks in the 1970s, remember that there was an annual pilgrimage to the well from St Werburgh’s probably from the time Canon Murphy returned as the parish priest in 1959. When it ceased is unclear although in the late 1990s, Chester City Council archaeologists lead local children on a well dressing walk on the 2nd of August St Plegmund’s feast day. The children on arrival would informally dress the well inspired by the rags hanging nearby. This is said to have ceased in 2000,but according to stcolumbachester.wordpress.com a pilgrimage returned in 2016, The website states:

“On 11 Sept 2016, Fr Jonathan together with 11 parishioners representing 3 generations of St Columba’s and St Theresa’s parishes, revived the tradition of walking to the nearby well of St Plegmund.  It was a lovely warm sunny day for the 3.6 mile walk which is now mostly along the Millennium Greenway.  We said prayers at the well and were then welcomed with tea and chocolate biscuits by Mike, the verger to St Peter’s at Plemstall where we were impressed by the carvings mostly done by the Rev Toogood in the last century.   There followed a picnic in the historic graveyard before a leisurely walk back to St Columba’s.”

Now since 2000 a Peak District style well dressing has been undertaken. Cheshire-Live website notes:

“THE annual tradition of well dressing is taking place in a Cheshire village this weekend. Volunteers in Mickle Trafford have been preparing the well dressing in the scout hut on School Lane in readiness for the blessing of St Plegmund’s Well ceremony on Sunday. Helpers include efforts by the Village Well Dressing Group, Mickle Trafford Primary School pupils and the Cestrian Scouts group. They have been providing decorations for the well and will transport their completed display from the scout hut to the well on Saturday in preparation for the ceremony. Only natural materials are permitted to be used within the display. The blessing of the well ceremony was originally intended to mark the new millennium but proved so successful it was decided to make the occasion an annual tradition. This year’s theme for the well is astronomy, with previous years’ displays based upon Alice in Wonderland, Hogwart’s Express and Creatures Great and Small.”

Themes varied from Royal Britannia to although this appears to have died out in 2010.

Sadly, no water flows through the well now said to be the result of a nearby Shell plant lowered the water table, but it clearly continues to be celebrated locally and provide a local connection to the age of saints. It is nice to hear of a village remembering its name’s original connection

Armchair holy wells – a Youtube focus part 2 Scotland

As noted last month due to the fact we are in lock down I shall continue to visit the holy wells via Youtube. This time we are visiting Scotland and we start with an excellent overview of the folklore given some while back by some unknown researcher! 🙂

In search of rag wells: St Mary’s Well, Culloden – a photo archive

First sighting of a hybrid votive offering custom a lock lock at a rag well.

wide array of coloured rags some of some age.

A number of trees are ‘adorned’ with anti-establishment slogans.

The most recent rag

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A branch with a collection of cotton rags slowly being covered with algae and rotting and an appropriate tartan one.

Lots of iron encrusted coins in the stream of the spring

A children’s bike helmet has this been attached as thanks for surviving an accident?

Tree beside the wall of the well has the largest number of coloured rags.

A scarf attached to a tree the furthest away from the springhead.

Armchair holy wells – a Youtube focus part 1 Wales

Dear followers and casual readers, as Covid-19 spreads across the globe and around 80% of the World’s population are in Lock Down the chances of any of us visiting a holy well are less than usual – unless its on our recreational walk or like me its under the house! Therefore I thought I’d post some Youtube videos which enable us to travel to holy wells from the comfort and perhaps frustration of our armchairs. I plan to focus on an area each month until the Lock Down period is over in the UK – sorry the rest of the world!

This month – Wales

A great introductory lecture

A well for lovers – Maen-du Well, Brecon

Now on the edge of a modern housing estate on the outskirts of Brecon, the Maen du well is a delightful find. Nestling in a small wood, a signed footpath takes you from the road to another world. The well is a small building, measuring 1.7, by 1.5 m inside. It is constructed of stone with a high vaulted roof formed with overlapping slabs. A doorway leads into a shallow pool of clear water with steps descending into it. The water flows into a large stone lined pool below it.

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How old is it?

Despite resembling the early Christian chapel/monastic cells that survive in Ireland and Scotland . A stone by the entrance is engraved 1754 with the initials WW. Which suggests it is not medieval after all. However, this could be the date it was built, or perhaps of a later rebuilding. The remains of an older well-building maybe evidenced by the ring of rough boulders in the pool.

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An article provides more in The Express dated 27th February 1913:

“THE MAENDU WELL – The well-known and ancient well is situated four fields from Maendu Street, and is to the north of the Priory Church. There is a pathway leading from Maendu Street, but this path for many months of the year is simply a gutter to carry away the water overflowing from fields higher up which badly want draining. The well was for many years the chief supply for the people residing in the Baileyglas and Pendre, and in ancient times it also supplied the Brecknock Castle. Old Sam Cooke, whose father was at one time wood-man to the Camden estate at Brecon, tells us that the well for some years also supplied water to Priory House, being carried through pipes to a tank placed in one of the fields near the Priory Churchyard. There is always a strong and clean supply of water. The well is arched over with stone-work and behind is planted a holly tree. On a stone at the entrance are the letters and figures “W.W. 1754” – probably the date when the present arch was erected. The stone-work shows signs of decay on the N.E. The dimension of the well inside is about 5 feet square, and the roof is about 10 feet from the water, which is only a foot deep, but very clear. The water runs away to a place outside, where those who were in the habit of fetching the water could descend steps and there place their water vessels, beneath the running stream.”

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A well for the castle

Thompson notes Pen y Crug an iron age hill fort nearby and suggests that the population therein used the spring. Certainly, Maen-Du well supplied Brecon Castle with water. An account reads:

“THE MAENDU WELL SUPPLIES THE CASTLE.

Hugh Thomas tells us, that at each corner of what he calls the square of this spacious building, were two watch towers, as might then be seen. The ruins of two of them still remain at the southern angle, and join an elevated and artificial mound, to the north east is the keep, since the confinement of Morton bishop of Ely, called Ely tower, where the conversation with the duke of  Buckingham, mentioned in the former volume, is supposed to have passed. The adjoining ground  on this side is considerably higher than the site of the castle, which made the northern front more  assailable than on any other aspect ; there were here therefore, in addition to the deep ravine or  mote before noticed, two additional fosses, occasionally filled with water from a well called the  Maendy well, which also supplied the fortress, though from the facility with which this stream could be  interrupted by an enemy in the time of a siege, there can be no doubt that there was also a well  within the walls, as water could be procured there without digging to any great depth.”

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A well for lovers

This well is very generally known as “The Wishing Well”, and love sick maidens are said to make pilgrimages and drop pins in the water whilst making their wishes.

Ian and Francis Thompson note in their 1999 The Waters of Life notes:

“the water was also good for eye complaints. We were assured that one man still fills his bottles at the well for his own use and that of his dog, who will not drink the local tap water.”

Richard Hall, the Brecon poet, has a reference to this well in his “Tale of the Past and other poems.”  Today there are no pins in the well that can be seen so perhaps the lovers have ceased to come…and now only local children hide out in this place.

Thompson notes that:

“within living memory hat pins were dropped in the well by girls seeking a husband, and since hatpins were relatively expensive, cheap imitations were sold in local shops for this purpose.”

The pool was restored with EU money and a local group called the Maen Du Group since 2009 have looked after the site clearing litter from the site, keeping the pond clean and producing signage although part of this sign has recently been vandalised. One does wonder how long the well can survive with the encroachment of urbanisation on its doorstep but for now it remains a romantic curiosity.

In search of rag wells: The Clootie or St. Boniface’s Well, Munlochy, Scotland – a photo archive

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This year we are focusing on the often controversial subject of rag or clootie wells. The topic has already been explored on this blog a while back but with new research it is worth exploring again. So this year either view detailed history/folklore discussion or photo archive we shall be exploring the topic again. To start rather than a detailed History/folklore blog post it would be good to look at the range of clooties or rags left at the country’s most famous example with my ideas of why and I hope it might encourage discussion.

Over Beltane 2017 I had the privilege to spend much of the day at this famed holy well. My aim was two fold:

a – to photo as many as possible of the clooties and other offerings at the well as a record

b – to hopefully encounter visitors attaching clooties

Below is a photo archive cataloguing some of the diverse form of offerings at the well. For the background to this site please see the earlier post. I shall give my recollections of b in a later post with another on the site’s history

I have tried to categorise each item and give some rationale…it’s a controversial subject and now the site has been cleared recently do doubtless many of these have gone, which is not necessarily a bad thing in many cases!

Underwear – were these spare or did they completely undress? Are they associated with problems with these parts of the body? There is the famous bra fence in Australia associated with cures of cancer is this the same or are they ex votos as thanks?

Shoes – Similarly for foot problems or thanks for travelling safely…some new shoes as well

Teddies and dolls – personal items of a sick child perhaps?

Flags! – Hope for Nationalism and a record for overseas visitors

Football scarfs – wishing the team good luck!

Tabards – asking for solving work problems or to give protection for workers!

Personal messages – hope, thanks and memories of friendship renewed

Bags – good luck for school

Plaster casts – speak for themselves

Odd eggs! – Cowabunga! Fertility perhaps or just an attempt at egg rolling!?

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This one’s been here for a while!

And there are many many more…perhaps enough for another blog post at the end!

‘a curious spring called Holy or Ladyes Well’ a little known Norfolk Holy Well

When doing field work for holy wells you can never know what you might find. A boggy hole surrounded by nettles or a fantastic romantick folly! Sadly more often it is the former as regular readers of this blog could attest. However,

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There is said to be a little south of the old church is according to Francis Blomefield in his 1805 An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk :

 ‘a curious spring called Holy or Ladyes Well’

No such name appears on the first series OS but a well is marked to the south-east and this would be the same as that which is marked on the early 17th century map as Ladyeswell. From the early fourteenth century the priory was usually referred to as St. Mary ad fontes, St. Mary de fontibus or St. Mary at the Welle. The site lies in the south-eastern corner of the churchyard area, around 50m south east of the church.

When I first looked for the site I was thwarted by the gate and barbed wire. My sources suggested that there was a spring beside the lake and old maps did show this but I assumed it had been absorbed by the pond. Returning on a fine spring day I realised that the fence and barbed wire had a gap and a small gate which opened and a path lead towards the trees where the lack of foliage indicated some sort of well structure.

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It consists of an approximately semi-circular basin, lined with stone blocks, with a shelf or sitting area, although the water filled the whole area. Three steps go down into the water. Above this is a probably 19th century wellhead on its east side, consisting of a round headed wall with a central niche which constructed of some reused architectural fragments and stone blocks some laying on the bench surrounding the spring. These coming from the ruined church above which is Saxon in date.  Above the niche is a piece of relief carving. This would appear to be the same that Michael Burgess in his 1988 Holy Wells and Ancient Crosses of Norfolk and Suffolk notes as in West Newton called Pilgrim’s Well, which tradition suggests was used by pilgrims on the way to Walsingham. The field contained the remains of a deserted village the street plan of which apparently can still be seen in the snow

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A connection with a most likely Marian well cult can be found at the Augustinian priory of St. Mary at Flitcham with Appleton. From the early fourteenth century the priory was usually referred to as St. Mary ad fontes, St. Mary de fontibus or St. Mary at the Welle.

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Who built it?

William White, History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk (1845) may provide one suggestion a Rev. W. Allen, of Narborough, who he records ‘who performs divine service in the ruins once a year.’ With such an interest in continuing services in the ruined church it would suggest that he would have had an interest in restoring the local holy well if only to provide clean water for those services. Sadly nothing can be found to validate this claim but it makes a likely person. Landowners would have to be involved and it is known that AJ Humbert was interested in improving the area. Again nothing can be located to suggest so. As Bromefield would perhaps only have heard of extant and interesting wells – ie not boggy holes – it suggests that there was some structure at the time of his work.

The final solution is a possibly obvious one is King Edward VII. One of his friends wrote after his death in 1910:

“Up to the last year of his life he was continually improving his domain, repairing churches, spending money on the place in one way or another.”

Could the monarch have improved the spring? Sadly, the local parish council and Sandringham estate appear to have drawn a blank when I enquired.

However, the enigmatic origins lend itself to this little known and undoubtedly best of the county’s holy wells.

A Roman water shrine rediscovered? The Weir garden’s mysterious well

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The Weir garden is a delightful riverside garden owned by the National Trust. Many people naturally visit it for the gardens but it is the unusual and possibly unique relic that can be found.

Before entering the main section of the garden is a curious octagonal cistern lying close to the path on the left This was discovered when some work people were digging for a new water pipe in 1891 during a period of drought. Whilst removing earth for a trench they discovered the site. Unfortunately, several of the upper stones were removed before its significance was realized and the placed back. This did mean that the sections were replaced but in the wrong parts and this explains the tanks less than perfect outline. When it was first discovered the excavators believed it to be a medieval structure this was despite the discovery of tesserae plugging a central opening in the lower stone. The remains of a wooden water calcified for centuries which used to direct the flow of the spring above and angled by about 45°from above. Elsewhere were pieces of broken tile, tesserae and green painted wall plaster. More substantial remains of buttresses can still be seen in the river below.

Local legend?

Associated with the site and gardens is a legend recorded by Jonathan Sant in his 1994 Healing wells of Herefordshire. The legend records that two figures haunt the well and area. One was a Roman Soldier and the other ancient Briton women said to have been his lover. It is said that his general sent him to the well with a message for a lady but alas he say his Briton lower saw them meeting at the well and suspecting him for infidelity and thus threw herself into the river. He saw her do this and jumped in after her. They both sadly drowned

Once a year it is said that the ghosts appear and fill the well with their tears and according to Sant its waters were said to have magical powers for lovers.

All this is possibly Victorian romanticisms post the discovery of the well. Jonathan Sant (1994) also states that the well was traditionally said to have been filled in by order of the bishop of Hereford but he does not claim why or give the source. Does this suggest that it was used as a pagan site? Or are we talking about a protestant Bishop stopping Catholic practices at a holy well? None of these legends appear to have attracted the attention of either Ella Mary Leather’s The Folklore of Herefordshire or Roy Palmers The folklore of Hereford and Worcester.

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A local water deity?

It is possible that the ruins represent a high status third or fourth century Roman villa which contained a Romano-British shrine dedicated to water nymphs called a nymphaeum. A clue to a local deity may come from the Roman altar stone found in 1821 beneath the Billiard Hall near the Hereford library may have originally come from the Weir Gardens and of what can be read:

DEO SILVANO

As Silvano was a Roman God of the countryside it would make sense to have them worshipped by the river Wye. It is possible that if the legend is not a Victorian embellishment that records folk memory of the deities.

A curious site and possibly one of the only truly surviving Roman water shrines in situ. It may have been Christianised but all memory of that has been forgotten. Hopefully one day more can be found.

The Nine Wells Shelford Cambridge

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Although it is not strictly a holy well nor apparently healing, its name, Cambridge’s famous Nine Wells (TL 463 542) has a name which suggests cult significance which we shall explore in a moment. The water from these springs which appear not to have the required number forms part of the Hobson’s (of Hobson’s choice fame) conduit which dates from 1610-14 as part of a ‘new river’ a scheme first devised in 1574 by the then Master of Peterhouse to provide clean water for Cambridge (similar schemes were constructed in Hertfordshire). The springs arise at the foot of White Hill in an area which was recognised by the Town and University as worth preserving as they did purchasing it in 1835 after the 1834 Great Shelford Inclosure Act.  In 1861 an obelisk, was erected which details the scheme. The water is accessed from an ornate conduit house called Hobson’s conduit house at Lensfield Drive in the city of Cambridge and runs through channels called runnels in parts of the city. Thompson and Thompson (1999) note of the flow of the waters hence:

“From this point three conduits conveyed the water to the King’s Ditch: one along Trumpington Street (originally in the middle of the road by replaced by the side runnels c.1800); a second, slightly further east, which was later culverted; and a third (dug in 1631 to improve the scouring of the Ditch) which originally ran above ground from Lensfield Road to St. Andrew’s Street and entered the Close Ditch close to St Andrew’s Church. This channel too is now mostly culverted through runnels survive at two points in St. Andrew’s Street: beside the Post Office, and by the taxi rank opposite Hobson Street. This channel now supplies water for the swimming pool in the Fellow’s garden at Christs.”      

The monument records:

“Andrew Perne, Master of Peterhouse, who first (in 1574) suggested taking water from here into Cambridge, in order to clean out the King’s Ditch, on the southern and eastern edges of the town. The filthy state of the King’s Ditch was seen as being responsible for recent outbreaks of plague in Cambridge.

Thomas Chaplin, Lord of the Manor of Trumpington in 1610, who signed a “tripartite agreement” with the town and the university giving them rights over the newly made watercourse and the soil either side in order to maintain it in good order.

Thomas Hobson, the well known Cambridge carrier (referred to in the phrase Hobson’s choice). When Hobson died in 1631 he bequeathed land so that its income could be used to maintain the supply of water to the market place, for in 1614 some of the water from the original stream had been diverted to the market place where it was used as a public water supply. This splendid portrait of him hangs in the Guildhall in Cambridge.”

 

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The importance of nine wells

The nine wells thus was the city of Cambridge’s sole supply of clean running water for several centuries supplying the King’s ditch and providing a conduit through the streets of the city and providing the Cold Bath or Fellow’s Pool which still survives in Emmanuel College Fellows’ garden which was constructed in 1690 and is claimed to be the oldest swimming pool in the country. As a piped water system was developed the old supply system became less important and finally a modern system was developed although interestingly water is still pumped from this area to supply the city.  Ironically, the flow was sadly much reduced as the water is now extracted at the Babraham Cambridge Water company extraction.

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How many springs are there?

Numerical named springs are not uncommon in England with Seven springs or wells being the commonest, nine wells or springs are rarer. However, it is interesting to note there is a cluster around the Hertfordshire-Cambridgeshire area with a Nine Wells at Hitchin and a Nine Springs at St Paul’s Walden. None have an obvious nine springs so what is the name. One possible is that it has the same derivation as the Noon, a Roman word for ‘fate’ suggesting the springs were possibly used to foretell. This is interesting as the area is also noted for woe waters whose rise and fall were used to predict major events. Does this support the origin? Another possible suggestion is that it derives from a Celtic word meaning ‘bright’. This is supported by the alternative name for the Nine springs at St Paul’s Walden white is also called ‘whytewell’, with ‘whyte’ meaning in Old English ‘white’ as in pure. Furthermore the River Purwell has its source at the Nine springs! The two linked names suggest a considerably coincidence if they were not linked for a reason and suggests it was a way of describing the clearness of the water and hence its purity. Certainly water passing through the chalk is very clear. This seems a more sensible and likely origin. The fact that the springs arise on White hill may also be significant. An alternative maybe that the scholars at the University gave it such a mystical and romantic name.