From Celtic Gods to Smugglers’ Rum – Paul Dewer Source New series No3 Spring 1995
Originally published in Source New series No3 Spring 1995
I have been fascinated by springs and wells since I was very small, and in recent years I wangled myself an allotment garden with a holy well in an adjoining wood! I live with my wife and children in the centre of Bristol and the allotment is a beautiful escape from the exhaust fumes. Our patch is a few miles out of town near the spot where the River Avon joins the Severn, so the animals my children get to see include not only horses, goats and domestic birds on nearby smallholdings, but estuary birds like heron and curlew. Larger animals like badgers and foxes have their homes in the woods at the bottom of the allotment. The foxes live in the ancient den at the back of the boat cave which contains the Bucklewell or Shirehampton’s Holy well (ST 539766) Britain’s own wild dogs guarding an entrance to the underworld! Last summer the fox cubs were spotted playing ball with the pumpkins growing in our garden. I’ve always dreamed of owning or living near a holy well but never thought it possible I count myself very lucky indeed,
Shirehampton is now a suburb of Bristol but until century it was a small though very busy village. It lies just north of a severe bend in the river Avon called Horseshoe point. This bend, and limited periods of access for large vessels due to the ridiculous tidal range of nearly 40’ eventually led to the decline of Bristol as an international port.
But ironically it was this huge rise and fall of the water in the Severn estuary and her tributaries, especially the spectacular spring tides, that must have partly attracted such a cluster of religious sites associated with the curative powers of the water. From the famous Romano-British temples and cult sites like those of Brean Down and Glastonbury, the area has a rich heritage of healing centres associated with water.
The immediate locality around Bucklewell has been inhabited since the lower Palaeolithic, some 2-300000 years. The people of that warm interglacial period left us their flint tools alongside teeth and bones of the elephants they hunted. These were among the first known people to settle in Europe and the arguments continue as whether they were Homo sapiens or, as seems more likely, Homo eretus, a different species of man and wom -kind.
Two ancient roads lead down to Shirehampton’s old Village Green to either end of a stretch of the River Avon called Hung Road, where the sailing ships were moored and hung by ropes from their masts to the river bank, to avoid topping over at low tide. The two roads that run there are Station (formerly lamplighters) Road and Woodwell Lane. Station road ran to the ferry, until recently the only river crossing for miles, and apparently of considerable antiquity. Woodwell Lane originally led to a small wooded cliff above Horseshoe Point. In this wood is Boat Cave in which lies a spring-fed pool called Bucklewell or Shirehampton Holy well.
The name Bucklewell or ‘Well of the Bowing down’ describes the attitude that every visitor to the spring adopts. Even in these irreligious times we are forced to bow before the holy well. A natural outcrop of conglomerate stone, locally quite rare, forms this roof. In some parts of the country this natural concrete is known as ‘pudding stone’ or ‘breeding stone’ because of the varying coloured pebbles that fall out or are ‘given birth to’ by the ‘mother’ outcrop.
Overlooking the Horseshoe Bend, lying close to an ancient river crossing, and the cave itself being the shape of a horse’s roof or crescent moon, make Bucklewell reminiscent of more famous entrances of the underworld. In Greek mythology the Well of the Muses on Mount Helicon was created by Pegasus stamping his hoof. Also nearer to home, the well of St Milburga at Stoke St Milburga in Shropshire was made when the saint fell out riding and told her horse to stamp the ground. Whereupon a spring of fresh water gushed up, enabling St Milburga to clean the blood from her eyes. Bucklewell shares with St. Milburga’s Well the reputation of waters beneficial for eye complaints.
It has been pointed out many times that folklore of holy wells and springs all over the world contains elements that hint at some recollection of oracular powers used in the service of a female deity; and Bucklewell is no exception. The central theme of its legend is as follows:
“Inside there is a crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.” (Sally Watson Underground Bristol Bristol 1991 p.47)
This is of course, displays a fertility theme: the inauguration and marriage ceremony of a Sun God/King go the female spirit of the land. Thus ceremony was preceded by the sacrifice and later rebirth of the God/King. This is beautifully described in the story of Lleu Skilful Hand in the Mabinogion. The name Bucklewell could incidentally be read as the ‘marriage well’ ‘to talk buckle’ is an old phrase meaning to ‘talk marriage’.
While we are looking at the mythology of damp places it might be worthwhile mentioning that at some time the area around the Bucklewell was planted with hazel trees in such a way that nuts would drop into the pool of the cave. A similar association of hazel nuts and a holy well can be found in the story of Connla’s Well from Ireland., where the hazel tree was poetic inspiration that could be found bearing fruit and flowers simultaneously; the fruit symbolising concentrated knowledge (as in’ in a nutshell’) and the flowers symbolising poetic eloquence. Indeed the most famous pool of poetic inspiration – that of Persephone herself – is described as a ‘hazel shaded’.
The legend of the Bucklewell mentions the ‘crumbling masonry’ that can be seen at the back of the cave. I can find no mention anywhere of the well having ever been dedicated to a Christian saint (although John the Baptist would be my guest, the principle action around Bucklewell occurring at the Midsummer’s Day) so I was doubtful of the interpretations of this ‘masonry’ being the remains of a hermitage. After months spent ruminating on theories of shrines, light boxes, sound boxes or foundations for Romano-british statues. I decided to crawl to the back of the cave and check out the crumbling masonry. Several unfortunate encounters with fox-droppings later, Ii found the remains for a small semi-circular structure, the masonry extends into a large crack in the stone roof. Then feeling a little sacrilegious I rolled my back and shone a torch up this crevice. There it was. No not s silver chalice, or even the remains of a chimney from the goddesses’ eternal flame. No, what the torchlight fell upon was a half brick! Along with this were numerous sandstone blocks held together with a grey mortar having a high content of charcoal pieces. The ‘crumbling masonry’ is of post-16th century date, and (of half brick being reused) is probably of, at most, and 18th century date. It looks to me like some sort of hiding place.
The prospects of a time jump from the poetic myth of prehistory to the activities surrounding a busy 18th century port seemed at first like a bit of a let-down. But it turned out to be an exciting period of the place. The port of Bristol was different from other ports in that not only did it lie miles from the ocean, but right in the city centre. Ships were moored a few feet from a labyrinth of alleys filled with shops and houses where illegal imports could disappear quickly – a nightmare for the Customs and Excise.
By the 1750s the port was seriously overcrowded and various plans for redevelopment were put forward. Merchants must have been sweating under their wigs. There was the ever present fear of valuable cargo, having sailed halfway round the world, only to be wrecked on the mud banks of the River Avon. But there was also the terrifying risk of fire sweeping through the ships, laden with gunpowder, moored cheek by jowl right in the heart of the town. The Bristol Merchant Venturers decided to build a magazine, away from the city, at which all incoming vessels could unload their gunpowder before reaching the port. The Powder House , as it was called, was built just on the seaward side of Horseshoe Point. The course of Woodwell Lane was altered to accommodate the magazine and the wall was bullet enclosing the whole plot of land, The Powder House and stretches of the wall survive to this day. Recently part of it, now incorporated in the garden wall, was rebuilt. Having a good poke about, I found the wall was made from sandstone blocks with occasional reused brick, held together with a grey mortar having a high content of charcoal pieces- identical to the masonry in the cave.
I must have occasionally worried the local neighbourhood watch, picking at garden walls with my biro, but so far I’ve not found mortar with the same make-up anywhere in the old village. It seems that the builders employed by the Bristol Merchant Venturers to construct the Powder House used some materials to make a small structure at the back of the cave. Two further stories appear to solve the mystery of the ‘crumbling masonry ‘Sowing the crop’ was the phrase given to a method of smuggling, and involved letting a rope tied with half a dozen ‘ankers’ over the side of the incoming ship. This was done at a prearranged location on the river. The middlemen or smugglers, came along under the cover of darkness in a small boat and retrieved the ankers with a grappling hook. Then he rowed ashore and usually hid the rum along the river bank where it could be collected later.
In 1798 the local Customs and Excise carried out ‘creeping’ exercise along the Hung road stretch of the river. Customs officers dragged the river from boats while their colleagues searched the riverside for their concealed contraband. On this particular ‘creep’ the officers searching the ‘holes and the gullies found 20 ankers of rum. That is I estimate 150 gallons! There is no record of anyone being persecuted as a result of this haul but it could well have put a small smuggling enterprise out of business.
Several years later – so the story goes – a party of local gentry decided to beat the bounds of Westbury Parish. Bucklewell was one of the boundary markers of the Shirehampton tything of Westbury. These people used to send out a couple of farm workers, or ‘pioneers’ as they were called, ahead of the main party to clear a path and find the boundary markers. On the occasion when the pioneers came to Bucklewell, they found an ‘old boat’ in the cave. This was and still is quite astonishing if one considers that the cave is in a heavily wooded cliff, some 40’ above the river at high tide, and 20’ from the cliff top! Astonishingly enough for Bucklewell to become known as the ‘Boat cave’ throughout the 19th century
Now for fear of the story getting around and upsetting the Bristol Merchant Venturer, I leave the reader to draw his or her conclusions about the crumbling masonry at the back of the Bucklewell or Boat Cave. Maybe the smuggling activities in the area led to another legend about the cave, which says that there was hidden treasure buried in the Bucklewell. Or maybe the treasure is the vision of the future, found in the depths of the pool on Midsummer’s Day. For me, the treasure is the glimpses into the past I have had researching the possible history of the Bucklewell.
A lost pagan well? Roston’s Friday Well, Derbyshire
In research for my Holy wells and healing springs of Derbyshire I came across the Friday Well at Roston. This certainly a curious possible holy well and may have been a traditional well dressing site. Oddly this is shown in Skyking-Waters Ancient wells of Gloucestershire (1927) showing it in 1887, but discontinued soon after apparently. Frith in his 1900 Highways and byways of Derbyshire usefully gives notes probably just before its demise. He notes:
“There had been a well-dressing, or well-flowering, here the day before, a charming Derbyshire custom which has been revived in many villages of recent years, when the principal wells are dressed with flowers and a simple religious service is held at their side. Here at Roston the school children had walked in procession from Norbury Church, a mile away, with the clergy at their head. Hymns were sung on the way, and again on reaching the well, where the Benediction was pronounced. “
He continues to note that:
“The Roston well — it bears the name of Friday Well— stands in a farm-yard at the back of a little Primitive Methodist Chapel, and I found the entrance decked with branches and boughs of trees, with a rustic arch adorned with cheap flags, large festoons of laburnum and lilac, and a scroll bearing the text, ” O ye wells, Bless ye the LORD, Praise Him and magnify Him for ever.” Over the well itself an elaborate structure had been raised, which had evidently kept the good women of Roston very busy for the previous day or two.”
The author continues to give a very detailed description of how the well-dressing was done:
“A large wooden frame had been made, rounded at the top and divided into separate partitions. In the centre was a representation of Battle Abbey, with the outline of the building picked out in haricot beans. A Union Jack waved above it— the red being supplied by geranium petals, the blue by cornflowers, arid the white by rice. The background was of moss and other green stuff. Devices were formed out of Indian corn, linseed and small fir cones ; daisies in intersecting rings and as borders were a feature of the decoration, and bright colours were obtained from different flower petals. ” Peace unto All ” was the legend at the top of the frame, and at the foot *’ GOD save the King,” while a dove of haricot beans spread benign and sheltering wings over all. The whole was a most creditable display of ingenuity and good taste. The frames are coated over with wet clay into which salt has been kneaded in order to keep it moist and adhesive, and the flowers and other ornaments are then stuck on one by one.”
Such effort and celebration suggested that this would be a significant well to discover whether it still existed and I did wonder whether the lost of the custom was caused by the loss the well.
Origin of the name
Friday Well is an interestingly named site which may owe its name to a Pagan origin linked to the goddess who gave us Friday so to speak. There are a few other such Friday sites but they are not as common as those derived from Thur or Grimr derivations for example. The site may be named after the Norse goddess Freya being derived from Frīgedæg and indeed the place was present at the Domesday book suggesting an older origin in line with Norse settlement perhaps. Was the settlement a localised site of a Freya cult? Skyking-Waters gives a suggestion that the name is from St. Frideswide instead. Alternatively it could be due to Christian observation on Good Friday especially being that it is associated with a Methodist chapel. Was the well dressed on Good Friday. Sadly, I can find no further details or clues.
Finding the well
Roston is indeed a small hamlet and very little appears to have changed over the intervening years. I enquired at the house which was the Primitive Methodist and was greeted with a welcome and an offer to see the site. The well’s fabric indeed still exists but was now dry. I was told that its water emptied into a large stone trough who the owner thought was possibly a tomb suggesting again perhaps an ancient significance was it associated with a local saint from a lost church? Sadly, the water ceased running, as the farm above the well has tapped it.
Re-discovering Radcliffe-on-Trent’s Holy Well
In the book Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire I detail the existence of a holy well in the riverside village of Ratcliffe on Trent just south of Nottingham. Details regarding the Holy Well of Radcliffe-on-Trent are scant. So far research seems to suggest it is a site which only appears post-1800s and whether this is due to poor recording or some developing Victorian antiquarian fancy is unclear. The first reference is 1801 as a Holy Well Close in the vicinity of the present Park Road. The next mention was in about 1844 when a Jonas Bettison sold just 35 acres in Cliff Hill Close and Holywell Close to Earl Manvers for £4500.
However, there are no traditions associated with the site. More recently according to Mr. Priestland, the name Holy Well has been associated with a site on the pathway down from the Cliff Walk to the level of the River Trent with its upper end opposite the northern entrance to the Rockley Memorial Park. He notes that the site has been described as Halliwell, Hallow Well and Hollow Well suggesting its name derives from O.E hol.
When I researched for the book I went along the path and discovered a spring, half way down the steep pathway, which formed a pool of water which is circled by large stones and went down to form a small stream which was dammed to form a further pool a few metres below the first although. This I assumed was the holy well and I published it as such.
However, correspondence from fellow holy well enthusiast Jane Fulford suggests I was close but not actually there and that the holy well was close by in what I could describe as the most precarious of locations on the very steep slope opposite.
Rather cautiously I went to look for it. It was not easy although I had been given excellent instructions I could not work out whether it was better to go down to it or go up to it. I managed to locate from the bottom and thought I’d work upwards to it. The slope was slippery with very few footholds or grip points. I nearly managed it before slipping back into the boggy water below. Taking the downwards approach looked preferable.
Once I had located I found myself some safe footing and examined it. At first what was apparent was that it was still flowing and with some considerable flow. The present well house is constructed of what appears to be Georgian brickwork with a cement render, much of which was missing. The structure like a dog kennel in structure a few feet high, I needed to crouch down to examine it. Once inside it, one could see the curved brick barrel like roof and it was apparent that the flow had petrifying qualities. as the overflow was considerably encrusted. The structure was unfortunately heavily overgrown with a large ivy making considerable impact on the infrastructure, so much that I fear that it may not survive for much longer.
The well certainly more authentically like a holy well than the site I first thought was it; although they may well indeed feed off the same spring. The only extra piece of information that Jane Fulford informed me was that the water was used by those using the waterways although we both agreed that its positions suggestions that was very improbable. Be very interested to find out more.
England’s first holy well? St. Augustine’s Well, Ebbsfleet
Many claim to be the oldest holy well but by virtue of its association with the first Christian ministry of the Saxons, St. Augustine’s Well Ebbsfleet is perhaps according to tradition the obvious claimant for the oldest ‘English’ holy well.
However early records are rare and its first reference appears to be on the 1874 OS map and its earliest written account is George Dowker in 1897 article for Archaeologia Cantiana On the landing place of St, Augustine records:
“Formerly Ebbsfleet was supposed to be situated where the farm-house of that name stands, and is so placed in the Ordnance Maps of Thanet; of late the spot has been shifted to near ” The Sportsman,” and by a spring of water called St. Augustine’s “Well, chiefly on the representation of the late Mr. W. R. Bubb, who resided at Minster; he walked with me to the spot where the present memorial cross is erected, and explained his reasons for concluding that the landing must have been there, and not at or near the Ebbsfleet Farm, as usually represented. These reasons were chiefly the presence of a large oak tree that was said to have formerly grown there, and the proximity of the place to Cotting-ton-field, which he thought a corruption of Godman-field.”
Interestingly it almost suggested that it was Bubb who coined the well and it would appear to be a possible invention by revived Catholics. This is supported by Rev Boggis (1907) in A history of St. Augustine’s College Canterbury,, as a Catholic revival:
“The next station is made at St. Augustine’s Well — just to quaff a draft from the spring which he is fabled to have brought bubbling up through the briny sands.”
The account also adds a piece of folklore similar to the tradition that like Becket at Otford he perhaps prayed for water, which is related by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin who states the saint was able to provide water for his thirsty followers by striking the ground with his pastoral staff but this could equally be another site. Iggleseden (1901-1946) Saunters in Kent. He describes:
“..a stagnant pool, the remains of a well, which had the reputation of miraculous healing powers, while the water was also used for baptismal purposes.”
However, Howarth (1938) who notes:
“near which is a well (known locally as St. Augustine’s well). This will continue to delude people into the notion that there is a real foundation for the view.”
Yet, Certainly by Stanley (1956) in The London Season pilgrimage was formalised:
“Near to the fifth green is a little spring of clear water which is known as St. Augustine’s Well, which legend holds appeared miraculously to slake the Saint’s thirst. Every year this site is the scene of the pilgrimage headed by the Warden of St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, who, in his role of Bishop Knight, kneels by the spring to drink the water.”
Why wonder what connection that has with what James Rattue (2003) in his Holy wells of Kent records:
“Apparently local nuns used to clear it out, but this has ceased to happen for almost twenty years.”
I was also informed by some members that this site was where a drunken vicar drowned, but have not substantiated this story.
St Augustine or St Mildred’s Well?
Howarth (1938) does not support the fact that Ebbsfleet was the location where on Whitsun A.D. 597, Augustine baptised heathen Saxons, amongst them, possibly King Ethelbert in the area. However, local lore recognised first a tree and now an ornate carved cross dating from the 1800s which depicts the story however there is a possible another association. James Rattue (pers com) suggests that the well may have originally been dedicated to St. Mildred, daughter of Queen Ermenburga, who was given land at Thanet, by the converted King Egelbert, as an apology for killing her brothers. Here, she founded a monastery, and became the Abbess of Thanet Minster; latter becoming their patron saint.
The view that the well was dedicated to her is based upon local tradition that a stone, located within proximity of the well, bore the footprint of the saint, made miraculously as she set foot on the land at Ebbsfleet, from France. One tradition associated with St. Mildred’s stone is that it could never be removed. Whenever it was it returned to the same position! This is a common folklore belief only spoiled here by the fact that St. Mildred’s stone has not been seen since the 1800s!
The site today
When James Rattue visited he described it as:.
“a pit, now usually dry, but which represents St Augustine’s Well.”
Now on the 17th fairway of St. Augustine’s Golf Course St. Augustine’s Well is a large circular steep sided pool, from which a sluggish stream arises, flowing to the sea. I found it full of water but not very pleasant more recent photos have shown cleaner water.
Noted springs and wells around Tunbridge Wells: Adam’s Well Speldhurst
There were a number of attempts to capitalise on the fame of Tunbridge wells perhaps the most curious was Adam’s Well. The earliest reference to the site is found in Thomas Burr’s (1766) History of Tunbridge Wells:
“on forest a little beyond the Rocks, a spring of water was discovered, which was palled in and called Adam’s well. For what particular reason this spring was taken such notice of, it is not now very easy to determine.”
Burr (1766) perhaps implies that the well was discovered within living memory, and its fame being established before that of Tunbridge. However, Alan Savidge in his 1995 Royal Tunbridge wells stated that it ‘enjoyed local repute’ long before the arrival of the Tunbridge spa.
Richard Onely’s 1771 General guide to Tunbridge wells stated that it was:
“very lately a medicinal water, called Adam’s Wells has been inclosed and made convenient for the remedy of scorbutic cases, and cutaneous eruptions; and which, from its well known and tried quantities, it is thought may answer in many cases, as well as sea water.”
Jasper Spange’s 1780 Tunbridge wells guide makes a small note of it.
“ADAM’S WELL which is a pure limped spring of a most soft pleasant drinking water issuing from a very high hill in a small farm in the parish of Speldhurst.”
Interestingly he adds:
“Those ingenious practitioners in physic the celebrated Doctors Pellet Shaw Lamont Blanchard & c always recommended it as fine drinking water and made use of it themselves for that purpose the last of whom has been overheard to declare to Mr Sprange Bookseller & c in his shop that there was no better drinking water in the neighbourhood”
Thus suggesting there was some attempt to promote the spring In John Russell Smith’s 1837 Bibliotheca Cantiana he states:
“SPELDHURST Adam’s Well at Speldhurst being as circumstantial a History of its Original and the cause of its present improvements the high esteem it has always been held in as a drinking Water and its salutary effects in the various Cases and Disorders herein described and attested as can at present be produced 12mo pp 29 London 1780”
John Evans in 1821 Recreation for the Young and the Old records:
“Adam’s Well distinguished for its transparency is in the vicinity.”
Alan MacKinnon (1934) in his History of Speldhurst, perhaps drawing upon an earlier source as well as describing it in greater detail, clearly indicates it origins as a holy well, in the use of the words holy water below:
“Adam’s Well is situated in this Manor, it was famous long before the Tunbridge Wells waters were discovered, and issue from high ground at Langton. In much repute in ancient times, it is impregnated with no mineral, saline, nitrous or earthy matter, whatever, it is quite free of sediment, and was called in old times a ‘holy water.’ In 1765, the owner of this well, on digging into the rock to enlarge the pool or bath came upon an ancient stone arch, whose date could but mere matter of conjecture. This arch can be seen at the present day.”
Combined with the traces of medieval stonework, the medieval origin is supported by its name: Adam, being taken from a local fourteenth century landowner, John Adam. Fortunately, Adam’s Well still exists, much as MacKinnon (1934) describes, now enclosed in the private grounds of Adam’s Well House: a bungalow, built in the nineteenth century, after a bout of vandalism, to house a caretaker for the well. The well itself arises in a shallow, square brick-lined chamber. Enclosing this is a large stone alcove, built to allow a sheltered access to the well during inclement weather. The back wall of this shelter is of a crude nature, indicating that it may indeed be of considerable age. A stone set in its arch notes: ‘ADAMS WELL 1868.’
This date presumably refers to when the well was repaired, and the house built. In front of this is a much larger and deeper rectangular stone chamber. I was informed by the then owner in the mid-1990s, Mrs Wolf, that dogs and horses were washed within this. Over this chamber is an iron grill with the letters ‘AW’ in its centre. Mrs Wolf also told me that the quality of the water was so good that it was bottled and stored on ships for long periods. Much of the popularity of the water came from the fact that it lay along the busy old road from Peacehaven to London.
Burr (1766) implies that its powers, to cure human ailments, were largely forgotten and:
“…at present it is only famous for the cure of mangy dogs, in which case it is esteemed an infallible remedy.”
Yet, John Britton (1836) in the Descriptive sketches of Tunbridge Wells and the Calverley estate; with brief notices of the picturesque scenery, seats, and antiquities in the vicinity describes it as being noted for:
“its transparency of its waters, and for its efficacy in some cutaneous disorders.”
Recent analysis showed that the water contains copper, which perhaps explains its lower popularity compared to Tunbridge, as copper salts were not as efficacious as iron salts. This is supported by Mrs. Wolf who noted that it had not cured her rheumatism!
Extracted from Holy wells and healing springs of Kent
Professor Charles Thomas Holy Wells of Cambourne extracted from Christian antiquities of Cambourne H.E Warne Ltd 1967 pp120-6 by kind permission of the author Originally published in Source – The Holy wells journal New Series No 2 Winter 1994 Part Two
In my aim to restore the lost articles from the Source archive this is the second part of the Holy Wells of Cambourne article
8 Maudlin Well
Just north of Roseworthy is the tenement of Cornhill, and in the valley bottom, on the Camborne side of the Connor street where a large field meets the uncultivated moor by the river, there is a spring now enclosed in a modern concrete housing. On the 1840 Tithe Map, this appears as ‘Maudlin Well’(field no. 435) miscopied as ‘Moudlin Well’ on one version. Henderson noted a version Medlenswell; but does not state where he found this. It is hard to think of any Cornish word which could have given rise to this way by corruption, and looks like as if this well was formerly ascribed to Mary Magdalene, sister of Lazarus and Martha.
9 Sandcot Well
In the extreme north-west corner of the Parish, there is a small steam flowing on the southside f the B3301 road, opposite the small one-storey cottage called Sandcot (below Pencobben) down the Red River bridge, or Gwithian Bridge, which divides Camborne from Gwithian. The stream comes out from under a rock in an overgrown quarry, and issues with some force,
The writer is indebted to Mr W. J. Furze of Beach House, Gwithian, for the information that this was at one time thought to be a holy well. The physical situation is certainly not against this theory, and it is interesting to note that there is no holy well otherwise known to be connected with the nearby chapel of St. Gothian, patron of Gwithian. This may be St Gothian’s Holy well.
The history and development of this site was fully discussed in Chapter V. It is worth stressing again that this may have been a medicinal well. Edward Lhuyd merely comments that ‘the well was call’d FentonIa in the psh of Cambron’ but fifty years later, Dr Borlase described it as a ‘well notated for Physical virtue’ and again as ‘…a rude well noted for its physical virtues.’ It is pity that we are not told what these virtues specifically were.
11 Fenton- Veryasek
The evidence for the existence of St. Meriasek’s holy well in Camborne, a shrine of some renown, rests not only in passages in Beunans Meriasek (a late mediaeval miracle play in Cornish detailing the life of St Meriasek/Meriagog -ed) but a wide range of independent accounts. The earliest is provaky that of Nicholas Risarrck writing in circa 1600 who says ‘there is a well wch also bereth that name and it is called St Marazaak’s Well’ Lloyd does not appear to have regarded the well as worth noting, but it appears in his notes as his chapel no 4 (at Rhoszwerb ie Rosewarne) and that some kind of structure was still visible about 1700 is confirmed by Tonkin
Thomas Tonkin of St Agnes in his unpublished Parochial History of Cornwall wrote between 1702 and 1730, the following passage concerning Camborne:
“I am inform;’d that there is a walled Consecrated well in the Parish called Mearhagos…and yearly the young People of the Parish frequent thai well, drink the water, and perhaps Cast some kind of offering in it, besprinkle themselves and then for the future are reckied true Parishioners and called Meerhagicks.”
Tonkin clearly shared an informant with William Hals who in the published portion of his county history, stated this
“CAMBURNE a Rectory, Is situate in the Hundred of Penwith etc. For its modern name Camburbe, which was not extant at the the of the Norman conquest, it signifies crooked or arched burne or well pit of water, so named from the famous consecrated spring of water and wall’d well in this parish call’d Cam-burne Well; to which Place Young People, and some of the Elder Sort,, make frequent Visits, in order to wash and besprinkle themselves with the Waters thereof…viz such as have been much sprinkled with Sprigs, Shrubs or Branches, viz, the shrubs, or Branches of Rosemary or Hyssop with which they are besprinkled. These are again by others also nick-name Mearagacks alias Meraragiks, that is to say Persons erring, straying, doing amiss, rash, fond, perverse, wilful, obstinate.”
This strange and much embroidered passage contains a good deal of hidden information. Tonkins Meerhagicks,, Hals Mearagacks and Lhuyd’s spelling of the Saint’s name as ‘Meradzock’ all confirm that by the 18th century, the last stage of Spoken Cornish, in intervocalic -s-in Meriasek’s name has become an English -J- sound, As Nance commented the colloquial pronunciation would now be ‘Mer -aj -ek’(probably with a strong penultimate stress). Hals gives at least two false etymologies ; that of the name Cambourne taking burne as a well or well-pit (OE burne stream, brook, fountain, well), an idea which was also expressed by Borlase; and an indigeneous attempt to translate Mer-rasick as a compound word instead of a proper name. As he appears to think it means ‘much sprinkled’ presumably be seen as VC mur, meor ‘great’ or meor ‘many much’ and an invented adjective ‘rasick’ possibly intended as a united form of crasyk (?crysek) from ModC crys, ‘a shaking, a shir’? Cf W crony vb to shiver and in Middle Ir creasach ‘ shivering. ‘Mearagacks alias Merargiks, on the other hand, he translates by a string of not wholly related adjectives, and it is hard to see what Cornish words, real or imagined, he had in mind here.
The special virtue of this well, as we know from Beunans Meriasek lay in the power of its water to cure insanity (lines 005-8 ‘likewise the water from my well/I pray that it may be a cure/For a man gone out of his mind/to bring him back to his wits again.). This reflects an original facet of Meriasek cult. At Stivalin Brittany an early mediaeval bell attributed to the saint is used to cure headaches and deafness, and at St Jean – du -Doigt, a mediaeval reliquary in the form of a bust of the saint contains what is alleged to be a piece of his skull. This head motif is thus central to some lost tradition it seems, in this respect to have been commissioned to both Cornwall and Britany. In Camborne, by a simple transference of ideas, those frequently Fenton-Veryasek would be jocularly regarded as in need of this specific cure, and the name ‘merajick’ must by Hals and Tonkin’s time have bee a local synonym for a hot-head or giddy fellow of any kind.
It is also seems clear from what Tonkin says that this well was in some way central to the life of Camborne; one suspects that the young people who frequented it ‘yearly’ did so in particular in early June, on the occasion of Meriasek’s feast-day.
Neither the well nor chapel are mentioned at all by Borlase, and all subsequent accounts derive either from Hall’s florid passage quoted above, or (more recently) from a minor elaboration of Hal’s remarks by Robert Hunt in his folk-lore collection. The chapel may have been in ruins as early as the 16th century, even if some kind of structure – as Thomas Tonkin suggests – even remained around the well itself until after 1700. In some form or other, the actual well was both known and identifiable until the last century, and gave its name to a house (St Maradox Villa) at the bottom of Tehidy road, Camborne.
The well was not, as tradition sometimes asserts, inside the present wall around the grounds of Rosewarne House. It stood on the opposite (west) side of what is now Tehidy Road, probably within the front garden or gardens of the late 19th century dwellings there. There is made clear from an interesting and unpublished paper by the late Tomas Fiddick, JP of Cambourne, a precis of which is fortunately preserved in Canon Carahs notes. The paper read to the Camborne Old Cornwall Society on 15th June 1925 states:
“St Meriadoc’s Well, which until existed until about 70 years ago was then a wishing well and children dropped pins into it, and expressed some wish, hoping to have their desires fulfilled, This well was inside a wall on the left of what is now Tehidy Road, going from the town, and just opposite St Meradix Villa. It appears to have been drained dry by mine adits and pumping operations at Gustavus mine. The water of the well was thought to have miraculous powers and especially for the insane.”
An interesting account of 1872 comes from the Rev John Bannister (vicar of St Day and author of A glossary of Cornish Names,18721) Reviewing Stokes edition of Beunans Meriasek, he wrote
“At the foot of Fore street also, east of the parish church, is a well still vulgarly called St. Merijicks, and the first Friday in June (some say July) is Teeming-day in Camborne, Some fifty years ago, I was told by an old habitant (who when a youth learnt orally from his uncle, the Cornish numerals up to 20, which he can now, though upwards of 80 years, repeat fluently from memory), no one could pass up the street on this day without having a pitcher of water thrown at him. Something o the kind though not quite so bad is still kept up; and old Hals yells us that persons washing in Camborne well, for the relief of some maladies were called Mereasicks or Mearagasks, though ignorant of St Meriasek, he gives his usual, some strange derivation for it, making it means something like sprinkled with rosemary.”
Bannister must be regarded as a reliable informant and this takes the life of the well a decade later than Thomas Fiddick states ‘Teeming day’ means ‘Pouring day’ from the obsolete dialect word ‘’teem’ pour (out) water preserved only in the English phrase ‘ teeming with rain’.
The famous well is now recalled only by a bronze plaque into the wall of the farmer Rosewarne park, a short distance away on the opposite side of the street. Erected by the late ,Mr James Holman who bought Rosewarne in 1911, it commemorates the starting point of Richard Trevithick’s first run in his road locomotive in 1801 – the birthplace of the modern railway system- and is dated ‘Peace day July 19th 1919’ it concludes ‘Also near this spot was the once famous Well of St. Meriadoc supposed to possess healing qualities of great virtue.
12 Bodryan Well
Henderson recorded a ‘Bodryan Well’ for both 1608 and 1650 as being in Camborne parish. Despite the most intensive search, the writer has been unable to find any other occurrence of this place name, either with reference to a tenement or to a field. It may represent ‘bos plus dreyn ‘ thorns’ or ‘house by the thorns’ but this scarcely helps in locating it.
A note on the locations of the wells listed
The following is based on the new (1963) Ordnance Survey 6 in. revised edition; N.M indicated not marked.
|1||Vincent’s Well||SW 67683776||N.M|
|2||Newton Moor Well||SW 6713873||W|
|3||Peter James’ Well||SW 65633728||W|
|4||The Reens Well||SW 65203834||N.M|
|5||Treslothan Well||SW 65143784||N.M|
|6||Silver Well||SW 65253744||N.M|
|7||Pendarves Well||SW 64703812?||N.M|
|8||Maudlin Well||SW 61413986||Spring|
|9||Sandcot Well||SW 59304230||N.M|
|11||Fenton -Veryasek||SW 64604052?||N.M|
The rise and fall of St Ruffin’s Well, Tamworth
Tamworth is noted for its splendid castle which dominates the public park, but once in the park was another notable antiquity St. Ruffiany’s Fountain or Ruffin’s Well (SK 207 039) The earliest reference for the site is in a 1276 Court Roll:
“Will’s Chelle obstruxit viam q’ ducit ad fontem S’ci Ruffiany.”
“William Chelle has blocked the way which leads to St Ruffianus’ Well”.
The site is supposedly connected with a King Wulfhere may have had the site as a Mercian royal residence and so may have dedicated the well as a holy well in penitence for the murder of his sons.
Who was St Ruffin?
St Ruffin was said to be a Saxon convert who was converted along with his brother, St Wulfhad in 670 being baptised by St Chad the Bishop of Lichfield. Both were said to have been killed whilst at their prayers. However there is some question mark over whether the saints really existed and were invented as a metaphor for martyrdom.
Destroyed, restored, destroyed.
Robert Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy wells notes it was destroyed by fire on June 15 1559 and its restoration took 40 years, but soon fell into disuse.
Lindsall Richardson (1928) Water supply of Warwickshire states that the site is a pool enclosed with brick walls, about 15 ft by 12 ft. It was thought to be covered by a high- pitched roof over it. This may explain the account that on the 15th June 1559 it burnt down. A flight of six steps descends to the pool from a doorway in an adjacent building. He continues to note that the pool is filled by a spring which overflows into River Anker.
The well lay on what was the eastern side of the castle’s lower lawns, beneath the Ankerside shopping centre. The surroundings of the well were improved in 1960 to commemorate the 1200th anniversary, three years previously, of the accession of Offa to the Mercian throne. The structure is modern and does not look much like a well, rather a raised plant bed being now situated on the south-west exterior of the Ankerside shopping centre.
A commemorative plaque reads:
“St. Ruffin’s Well. According to tradition this well was dedicated to St. Ruffin. The Martyred son of Wulfhere who was King of Mercia in the seventh century. The restoration work was carried out to commemorate the 1200th anniversary of the accession to the Mercian throne in 757 a,d of King Offa whose Royal palace stood in the northern part of these grounds when Ramworth was the capital of that Kingdom.”
However a recent visit has found that this has been removed and all sign of the well has vanished.
To be restored again?
Then in 2012 a Facebook group was formed with its aim to restore the well. However, the following post suggested the issues about restoring
“Well, well, well (excuse the pun) – here is a long overdue update for you folks who are in support of the campaign to re-instate St Ruffins well. The campaign is still alive and kicking – the situation at the moment is:
1. Tamworth Borough Council are not opposed to the idea!!!
2. They want empirical proof that the spring is still there before we can do anything
3. Having spent the best part of a year talking to University archaeology depts, county archaeologists, English Heritage, private companies etc etc, we are in a catch 22 position –
There is no test or survey that will show whether the spring is still there, at best all that would show up is whatever they capped it with (probably a lump of concrete) – the best way to find this is to dig a hole – SO – we need to dig a hole to find the empirical proof for the council that will lead to them giving us permission to …. dig a hole – you see the problem.”
However despite a positive campaign as noted from below
- “The Tamworth Herald say they have had lots of emails in -supporting the campaign to ‘Free St Ruffins Well’ and are publishing an update of the situation in tomorrows Herald, so will purchase a paper tomorrow with baited breathe.”
And indeed we have because St Ruffin’s Well remains unrestored and the campaign to revive similarly appears to have hit a hiatus! It is a shame because as the photos show a restored St Ruffin’s well could become a real feature in the castle grounds.
Mysterious creatures of springs and wells – Frogs and wells
Frog and toads not unsurprisingly you might think are associated with springs. Two old English words O.E frosc meaning frog or O.E paddock for a ‘toad’ and their derivations can be found across the country.
In Essex there are a number of Freshwell derivations which suggest from Frosc. The earliest being a Freshwell mentioned in 1086 in Great Sampford, Freshwell in the 13th century and another in Saffron Walden first mentioned in 1605. In Panfield there was a Froshwell mentioned in 1586 and Upminster a Frogwell.
There seems a strange conglomeration of such sites in Essex and elsewhere it is more common to find toads. In Staffordshire, Padwalle first mentioned in 1481in Longnor and Padwell in Barborough, as Padwell (1830) and Edwalston and Wyaston a 1314 Padewalle. In Leicestershire there is a Paddock Well noted in 1638 in Church Langton, Leicestershire and Padwell in Fulstow (from the 1840 Tithe map) and Tadewell a 13th century mention in Ferriby. Kent’s Birling has a Puddle Well noted in 1837 and a Tadwell in Minster in Sheppey (noted in 1840). There are surely others but why?
The obvious answer is that frogs and toads live in springs. However, they do not or rather very rarely. I’ve never seen one in a spring or well – perhaps the rarity offers a reason but it may be deeper than that. Toads in particular have supernatural connotations and a clue may be found in the Frogwell at Acton Burnell in Shropshire which folklore suggests the well was a guardian. Did people visit these wells to utilise the frogs for magical practices or was the frog seen as some sort of harmful creature.
Another possible source is that these animal represent totem animals which specific prehistoric groups associated with – akin to the spirit animals of first nation groups such as in the USA and Canada. This might explain the frequency of them in areas such as Essex perhaps.
Mysterious creatures of springs and wells – Phantom Black dogs
A phantom black dog usually much larger than an actual dog, often said to be the size of a calf, with glowing red eyes is a folklore standard being recorded from across the country. Whether they be called Black Shuck, Barguest, Gytrash, Trasher, Padifoot or many other names often there is an association with water. As a brief introduction I have again attempted to included as many as I have uncovered.
It Lincolnshire often they are associated with bridges such as Brigg, Willingham (Till bridge) or banks of streams. At Kirton, there is a black dog was reported as living in a hole in the stream bank near this Belle Hole farm. Ponds were often associated with it such as the fish pond in Blyborough Lincolnshire. Rudkin in her 1937 Lincolnshire folk-lore notes a site called Bonny Well in Sturton upon Stow Lincolnshire which was an unfailing supply even in the great drought of 1860. One assumes that the site derived from O.Fr bonne for ‘good’. The site in the 1930s was a pond down Bonnywells Lane and was associated with a number of pieces of folklore; that it was haunted by a black dog and sow and litter of pigs which appeared on Hallowe’en. In the same county, Hibaldstow’s Bubbling Tom had a black dog protect it. Edward Bogg’s 1904 Lower Wharfeland, the Old City of York and the Ainsty, James tells how near St. Helen’s Well, Thorpe Arch:
“padfoots and barguests…..which on dark nights kept its vigil”
In Elizabeth Southwart’s 1923 book on Bronte Moors and Villages: From Thornton to Haworth, she talks about Bloody tongue at Jim Craven’s Well, Yorkshire:
“The Bloody-tongue was a great dog, with staring red eyes, a tail as big as the branch of a tree, and a lolling tongue that dripped blood. When he drank from the beck the water ran red right past the bridge, and away down—down—nearly to Bradford town. As soon as it was quite dark he would lope up the narrow flagged causeway to the cottage at the top of Bent Ing on the north side, give one deep bark, then the woman who lived there would come out and feed him. What he ate we never knew, but I can bear testimony to the delicious taste of the toffee she made.”
She relates one time:
“One Saturday a girl who lived at Headley came to a birthday party in the village, and was persuaded to stay to the end by her friends, who promised to see her ‘a-gaiterds’ if she would. As soon as the party was over the brave little group started out. But when they reached the end of the passage which leads to the fields, and gazed into the black well, at the bottom of which lurked the Bloody-tongue, one of them suggested that Mary should go alone, and they would wait there to see if anything happened to her.
“Mary was reluctant, but had no choice in the matter, for go home she must. They waited, according to promise, listening to her footsteps on the path, and occasionally shouting into the darkness:
““Are you all right, Mary?”
““Ay!” would come the response.
“And well was it for Mary that the Gytrash had business elsewhere that night, for her friends confess now that at the first sound of a scream they would have fled back to lights and home.”
The author continues:
“We wonder sometimes if the Bloody-tongue were not better than his reputation, for he lived there many years and there was never a single case known of man, woman or child who got a bite from his teeth, or a scratch from his claws. Now he is gone, nobody knows whither, though there have been rumours that he has been seen wandering disconsolately along Egypt Road, whimpering quietly to himself, creeping into the shadows when a human being approached, and, when a lantern was flashed on him, giving one sad, reproachful glance from his red eyes before he vanished from sight.”
In Redbrook, Gwent, Wales, at Swan Pool after the crying of a baby and then the appearance of a women holding a baby, a large black dog appears circles the pool and heads off a to kiln. In the Highlands a pool containing treasure is guarded by a hound with two heads and it is said to have haunted a man who drained the pool and discovered the treasure. He soon returned it! A moat near Diamor County Meath is said to contain a nine kegs of gold protected by a large black and white spotted dog. One could collect the gold if the dog was stabbed three times on the white spot. Another white dog is found, described as the size of a bullock, at Bath Slough Burgh in Suffolk.
Water appears also to be a place of confinement. At Dean Combe waterfalls in Devon the ghost of local weaver was banished by a local vicar and when he turned into a great black dog was taken to a pool by the waterfall. Here it was told that it could only concern people once it had emptied all the water using a cracked shell! At Beetham a local vicar banished a spirit called Cappel which manifested itself as a dog into the river Bela in the 1820s. Equally one wonders if the account associated with St Eustace’s Well, Wye Kent has more significance:
‘swollen up as it were by dropsy’ came to a priest, whom upon seeing her urged her to go the spring. This she did and no sooner had the women drunk the holy water, she recovered but vomited forth a pair of black toads, growing into black dogs, then black asses! The woman surprised vented her anger against these manifestations and the priest intervened, sprinkling the holy water on ‘they flew up into the air and vanished, leaving no traces of their foulness.’
Holy Wells of South Wales: A peaceful retreat by the sea St. Anthony’s Well Llansteffan
One of south Wales’s most evocative and peaceful holy well is that of St Anthony’s Well in Llansteffan. One approaches the site by a path that leads from the castle site down to the beach.
Why St Anthony?
A fair few Welsh holy wells are dedicated to their local holy people but this one is dedicated to St Anthony. However, this still underlines its association with hermits as titular saint is St Anthony of Egypt who in around 251-356 AD was believed to be the first Christian hermit. Like modern day Catholics who take a saintly name at confirmation Celtic holy people would adopt names which had a spiritual significance. Thus locally this hermit was called Antwn; a Welsh form of Anthony who is said to have lived here in the sixth century. The plaque on the wall of the well records:
“Little St Anthony’s Well is barely large enough to get your hand inside for a drink of water. But you must wait patiently for the clear drops to seep from the mossy recess in the hillside.”
Chris J Thomas in his 2004 Sacred Welsh Wales describes it as cold and bland so it may not be worth the wait.
It is recorded that in 1811 existing stonework has been built around the natural spring in the form of a pointed arch with an offerings shelf at the back. A small recess above the shelf is where a statue of the saint was reputedly placed. Now there is an icon of the saint. Prayer flags festoon the area as well.
In more modern times the surrounding area has been rather heavily improved with extra retaining walls and a paved forecourt. It is now described as a Grade II listed site is describe as having a well chamber set within a triangular-headed recess into the southwest facing wall of the enclosure and above it are two stone shelves and a carved niche. Above it is a relief carving, presumably of Antwn, is on the rear wall of the enclosure
The shelf is full of cockle shells -and some other small votives and it is apparent that the tradition is alive and well. However, I am unaware of why they are doing so.
A hermit’s well
So this was a hermit’s well which suggests in the location there was a hermitage or at least a site of refuge. A suggested site is a cave further down the bay shaped similarly to the well arch – however there is no evidence.
Local tradition suggests that he used the water to baptise local people It is still a site of pilgrimage. Paul Davis 2003’s Sacred Springs: In Search of the Holy Wells and Spas of Wales notes that:
“frequented by lovesick travellers intent on casting a pin into the well to fulfil their hearts desires.”
Thomas (2004) notes:
“Pilgrims still visit this well for their own secret purposes, the most prevalent of which is for ‘wishing’. Romantic aspirations and reparations are what St Anthony’s Well is best at, apparently. You must be totally alone, offer a small white stone and wish very sincerely. There ae no known statistics regarding its success rate.”
It is not difficult to see why this site would not be in anyone’s top 10 of sites – the seaside location, its secretive enclosure and the sweeping gardens and sylvanian setting surrounding it mean it would be easy to spend a few hours in solitude listening to the dripping water and the sounds of the waves. A more peaceful place would be hard to find.