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In the shadow of a giant…St. Augustine’s Well of Cerne

The copyright on this image is owned by Peter Beaven and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

“Augustine and his worthy companions were wandering through an empty land, where no water was. Heat and drought and weariness weighed on them… True, Augustine had drunk too copiously of that sweet well which flows to eternal life for him to hanker after those earthly wells where those who drink will thirst again; nor did he take much pains for the food that decays, being nourished instead by that which endures in life eternal… But then he thought how good it would be for the land to be flooded by the goodness of heaven, sparkling with the true spring of life. He fixed his staff in the ground, and when he drew it forth, out surged a stream of pure water. All gave praise to God as they tasted of these waters, and drank till they were satisfied. This is the spring which today feeds many streams, so that a district which was once barren is now thickly populated”.

Shorter Life of St Augustine by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, around 1090

A later legend states:

“T”.he shepherds complained to him that there was neither water nor beer. So he asked them whether they would like water or beer. They answered “Water”. He then struck the ground and lo! water appeared

Both accounts states the legend which explains Dorset’s most famous holy well. A holy well which as an ancient site, is much overlooked by the swarms of tourists visiting the famous Giant and deserves to be better known. Goscelin notes further that:

one of the brethren at Cerne Abbey was a parish priest, whose business it was to celebrate the sacred mysteries for the laity. He was worn down by such weakness that he was given up for dead. The onset of night, and of exhaustion, brought some sleep to the poor wretch. Then, in his sleep, he saw the merciful figure of Augustine standing before him, in archbishop’s vestments, shining with bright embroidery. He spoke to the trembling invalid, putting him at his ease with kindly words, and told him to get up and go to St Augustine’s well. When he got there, he was to say the fiftieth psalm three times over with true devotion, and three times, after each psalm, he was to dip himself in the well and wash in its waters. Do this, he said, and you will be restored to life and health. And you can be sure that it is I, Augustine himself, who is telling you to repair to my spring. Now comes the miracle! The priest awoke immediately, and half-dead as he was, he threw himself out of bed. Leaning on a stick, he hobbled off to take the bath as instructed. The men of the infirmary thought he had lost his wits with the onset of death. They tiptoed after him, making no attempt to stop the man, but wondering where he was heading. The sick man bathed himself with a threefold washing in the waters of the well, saying the psalm three times, as he had been told to. And, so rapid was the remedy of his holy doctor, that the man who had set out as an invalid went home again healthy, snatched from the jaws of death”.

The well survived the dissolution of the Abbey it was associated with as John Gerald notes in 1625 in his Survey of Dorsetshire:

“His Well you may see at this Daye in the Abbie Church Yarde, heretofore covered with a Chappell dedicated to St Augustine, and from him likewise was it called St Augustine’s Well”.

The well survived the dissolution of the Abbey it was associated with as John Gerald notes in 1625 in his Survey of Dorsetshire:

“His Well you may see at this Daye in the Abbie Church Yarde, heretofore covered with a Chappell dedicated to St Augustine, and from him likewise was it called St Augustine’s Well”.

It is interesting to note that it was covered with a Chappell which may refer to a traditional building akin to something like St. Winifred’s Well (but probably no where as grand!) or a well house, which is more likely. Whichever it is, the site no longer covered by any construction and consists of a spring filled channel associated with an upright stone with a circular cross upon it.

What’s in a name?

It would be apparent that by the late 1700s it was in need of repair as churchwardens’ accounts of 1761, refers to a payment of £1 5s for:

 ‘John Thorne’s Bill for work about St Paston’s Well’.

Paston’s corruption form of St Augustine’s Well no doubt! However, some confusion has arisen concerning a supposed second name – Silver Well. However, this name may record a second site located at Stockwood which has an alternative name of St. Edwold and the too not the same.

A wishing and curative well

“if anyone looks into St Austin’s Well the first thing on Easter morning he will see the faces of those who will die within the year”.

St Augustine’s Well for some unknown reason has collected its fair share of folklore. In recent years it has even become a rag well! Moule (1888) in his ‘Dorset folk-lore’ in the Folk-Lore Journal states that:

“folks hold to the belief that St Austin’s Well… still works wondrous cures. I have had a case told in all detail while sketching the lovely spring”.

In another copy of Folk-Lore, March (1899) in this ‘Dorset folk-lore collected in 1897’, is informed that:

“a man now living, named Vincent, aged fifty-five years, had a crippled child. Every morning, for several months together, Vincent carried his child, wrapped in a blanket, to St Austin’s Well, and dipped it into the well, and at last it was cured. Sore eyes are healed by bathing them, and feeble health is restored by drinking curative. A farmer used to go down to this well every morning and drink a tumblerful of the water.”

To obtain a wish an unusual ritual was developed. Hall (1925) in their Concerning Cerne notes that:

“The prescribed usages for “wishing”. Pluck a laurel leaf – there will be one handy – fold it into a cup, fill it from the spring, then standing on the little parapet, face the Church, drink, and before swallowing the water, make a secret wish”.

Interestingly, in Dacombe’s 1935 Dorset Up Along and Down Along she records the strangest piece of folklore that: 

 “There are eleven trees on the way to the well, representing the eleven apostles – only eleven, because Judas betrayed our Lord”

Udal (1922) associated the well with a spring in the parish were babies could be cured if dipped in at sunrise, however this may be another site. All in all a very rich site for legends and folklore. A few moments here has a peaceful nature to it and to be highly recommended…after all it even has a seat.

A Huntingdonshire field trip

Huntingdonshire is not a county associated with holy wells and healing springs but during my research a number of interesting sites are still to be found in the county

HUNTINGDON

It is good to see the county town has still retained a site which Dr Daniel Layard (1759) described as spring to the north of Huntingdon as:

“The pure and limpid water called Horse-Common Water at Huntingdon, remarkable for its softness and little sediment.”

So it is still found, the Horse-Common water (TL 238 726) named after the area of land it is found in. Today this common is an odd relic surrounded on all sides by modern housing and a leisure centre. The spring produces a fine flow and is responsible for the marshy area here and its own survival; it would be an unsuitable area to build on. The spring arises from a substantial structure, with steps down to the water which flows out at some force and forms a channel through a paved area. An older structure can be observed within the more modern well house. There was a cast iron lion’s head where water flowed out of its mouth via a pipe and a chain with a cup beside it. All evidence of this has gone.

Local people state that they used it to wash their hair as it was better than tap water and picked water cress around the area. There appears to be no record of any medicinal use although it is clear that it was so regarded. Can we suggest considering its proximity to a Roman road, that it was known by Huntingdon’s Roman inhabitants? This site was also called Cowper’s Spring, associated with poet William Cowper who had a bath house built and presumably what remains are the relics of this.

LONGSTANTON

Lying in the churchyard of the thatched chapel of St Michael, is a particularly fine example of a baptismal well, called Holy Well or St Michael’s Well (TL 403 658) However before the arrival of a Mr and Mrs Brown to the village the site was very neglected and little known.  The well settles under a large tree in the corner of the tree which may be significant and is enclosed in a yellow brick half barrel well house, at the back of this is a cross shaped window. This has been erroneously reported to project the image on the head of the baptised individual. However, I was informed by Mrs Brown that there was no evidence to support this although it is an interesting theory. The well arises in a shallow circular well with a gravel substrate (the source of the water is not clear), and is approached by a series of steps between two low walls and black metal railings which encircle this approach to the well with a small gate. A black metal guard has been placed in front of the well, and this can be raised to give access.

There would seem to be local disagreement over the use of the well and indeed whether it was dedicated at all! Its proximity to the church suggests its use in baptisms, although no clear records could be found. Notwithstanding, Mr Brown did speak to an elderly lady whose mother was baptised in it about 100 years ago.

Well dressing was introduced in 1986 making two of Cambridgeshire’s Holy wells that have had this distinction. The dressing consists of a tryptic arrangement with a variety of images and motifs: The Golden Hind with bells and anchors; East Anglian Life: a windmill and church; The Harvest is ripe. A number of photographs of these ceremonies are displayed in the porch of the church. Sadly lack of interest within the village seems to have caused the abandonment of the ceremony, as it was only Mrs Brown and another elderly lady doing the rather time consuming work. Hopefully one day it will be restored.

PAPWORTH ST AGNES

Arising in a boggy hole is St Agnes’s Well or Nill Well (TL 268 625).The spring area is stained red indicating it schalybeate nature but it is difficult to discern exactly where the spring arises. It is found in a small copse just off a small road. Does the name Nill refers to fairies? Possibly not as there was a Gilbert de Knille recorded as a landowner in 1279, but did he get his name from the well? Which St Agnes is referred to is unclear especially as the much restored church is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and this likely that as Reaney (1943) notes that the village takes its name from Agnes de Papewurda. It is possible that this is the spring noted by Scherr (1986); recorded as Anneiswell, in the 13th century. Someone along the way has made the site related to a saint byb accident                    

A Shropshire field trip

Shropshire has a number of interesting holy and ancient wells

STOKE ST MILBOROUGH

Wells found in villages which bear the name of the saint the well is dedicated to are always very interesting and this site is perhaps the original focus for the community and it is not always clear my the saint has become synonymous with the location. The origins of St Milburga’s Well is associated with a local legend. In the village they tell a legend of the saint being chased for two days and nights non-stop until exhausted she is said to have fallen from her white horse and cut her head open on a stone. The fall was witnessed by some farm workers who came to her aid but found no water to bathe her with. She then turned to her horse and instructed it to hit the stone to which the spring then arose. Such stories are often told of saints, for example see my blog entry on St. Thomas’s Well Otford for a more famous example. A great story is also recorded that she made the barley the men were sowing when the incident happened to grow rapidly, in fact so much that it was harvestable. When the saint’s pursuers came by later that day the men were indeed harvesting the barley, and so when asking if they had seen the saint they said yes when they were sowing the barley. Confused, the pursuers gave up and the saint escaped.  The well itself was noted for cures of the eye although it also used for washing clothes by the local women and was finally enclosed in the early 20th century for the village water supply. Today despite appearing still to be tapped, the modern water works being rather incongruous and ugly, the main spring still flows rapidly down hill arising in a square chamber. It has occassionally been dressed.

HOPE BAGGOTT

Hope Baggot’s holy well is one of the simplest but most evocative of sacred springs. One can feel that little has changed for perhaps thousands of years and if such sites do have a pre-Christian history this one with its protective ancient yew is clearly a candidate. Sadly little is known of the site. The Carbon dating of the yew gives a date of 6000 years but does not mean the site has been venerated that long. The well itself arises in a stone lined grotto and flows pleasantly. The tree is adorned by clooties and the overall effect is rather magical.

LUDLOW

Ludlow has two noted wells, either sides of the town. The Boiling spring is a rather insignificant boggy morass and not much to be seen. However, it is one of the few wells to attract a legend as Hope (1893) notes:

“The pretty legend of the Boiling Well–so called from its continual bubbling as it rises–in a meadow beside the River Corve at Ludlow, was related to me on the spot in the year 1881, as follows. Three centuries ago the principal figure would have been described as a holy saint in disguise instead of a simple palmer.

Years ago, you know, there was what was called the Palmers’ Guild at Ludlow. You may see the palmers’ window in the church now: it is the east window in the north chancel, which was the chantry chapel of the guild. The old stained glass gives the story of the Ludlow palmers; how King Edward the Confessor gave a ring to a poor pilgrim, and how years afterwards two palmers from Ludlow, journeying homewards from the Holy Land, met with the blessed St. John the Evangelist, who gave them the same ring, and bade them carry it to their king, and tell him that he to whom he had given it was no other than the saint himself, and that after receiving it again the king should not live many days, which came to pass as he said. The Palmers’ Guild founded many charities in Ludlow, and among them the Barnaby House, which was a hospice for Poor travellers. Many used to pass through the town in those days, especially pilgrims going to St. Winifred’s Well in Wales. And once upon a time an old palmer journeying thither was stayed some days at Barnaby House by sickness, and the little maid of the house waited on him. Now, this little maid had very sore eyes. And when he was got well and was about to go on his way, he asked of her what he should do for her. ‘Oh, master,’ said she, ‘that my sight might be healed!’ Then he bade her come with him, and led her outside the town, till they stood beside the Boiling Well. And the old man blessed the well, and bade it have power to heal all manner of wounds and sores, to be a boon and a blessing to Ludlow as long as the sun shines and water runs. Then he went his way, and the little maid saw him no more, but she washed her eyes with the water, and they were healed, and she went home joyfully. And even to this day the well is sought by sufferers from diseases of the eyes.”

St Julian’s Well is enclosed in something a little more substantial, a stone well house which is rather strangely placed on a small island in the road. It is difficult to see how functional this well would be as I could not see a doorway. The whole structure is rather sunken in the ground and looks more like a conduit house. It was used by the Augustinian friary.