As St Georg’s Day approaches I thought it would be interesting to cast one’s attention to wells dedicated to the saint. Jeremy Harte in his 2008 English Holy Wells Sourcebook refers to six wells dedicated to St George: Wilton, Cullompton, Hethe, Holsworthy, Kirkwhelpington and Stamford. He does not include Padstow’s St George’s Well because he does not include Cornwall in his survey. Interestingly though he misses a St George’s Well at Minsteracres which means despite a sparse distribution across the country, two exist in Northumberland.
It thus begs two questions. Why does England’s patron saint have so few wells dedicated to them? And how authentic then are the St George’s wells which are known?
One of the most interesting is that at Minsteracres at Barley Hill Northumberland. The Historic record notes simply: Park with gate lodges, water features, a well and a chapel. The well itself lies in a shrubbery enclosed in a small piece of low stone walling on one side rubble built behind and dressed at the front. The spring arises in a circular chamber near the walling in a pavement area which is lower and enclosed. There is often water in the well but no perceivable flow. The brickwork looks Victorian and the site is marked on the first series OS map but significantly perhaps not in italics suggesting no great age.
The estate is mediaeval but it is likely to be two origins to the well. Firstly it could link back to the family who owned the estate in the 1800s, the Silvertop family. They were devout Catholics, who made considerable fortune from coal mining but were persecuted for their faith. George Silvertop is likely to be the first one responsible. He travelled widely and brought back a number of trees and plants from his journeys to beautify the estate. Did he improve a spring and dedicate it? The second likely person is his nephew Henry Charles Englefield, who inherited the estate and adopted the family name and significantly built the mansion’s private chapel which became St Elizabeth’s Catholic parish church in 1854. Did he need a spring for baptism water and liturgical processes – if so why George and not Elizabeth?
The final group of people were those who took over the estate after the second world war: Friar Colum Devine of the Passionist Order, who transformed Minsteracres into a monastery and retreat centre which opened in 1967. However, despite a Catholic order being the most obvious choice for dedication their taking over of the estate is too late as it had already appeared on the OS map by that point. My person guess is the Henry Charles Englefield but I am sure that a deeper examination of the records may reveal something and perhaps explain why this saint was adopted. And was it an earlier holy well forgot and restored or just a simple spring?
So why are St George’s Wells so scarce? One would have thought being England’s patron saint would have been popular enough to have a large number of dedications but that it a way underlines how wells are named and why. Did the cult of St George arrive too late to see a wide spread adoption of his name? Indeed of the 6 wells mentioned by Harte on Wilton’s has any authenticity being recorded as mediaeval. But of course this did stop the wider adoption of St Anne in the 14th century. Of course that in itself may suggest why certain saints had better ‘healing traditions’ and saintly importance in the pantheon of saints. Equally often wells adopted saints names due to an association of the saint with water and healing. St George does not obviously appear to have either.
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.
Sometimes there is a site which should be a holy well and is certainly significant but despite being recorded as a holy well by some authorities I cannot find any support for this view. The first record of the site is from Abraham de la Pryme, following his visit in 1697 wrote in his diaries:
“This day I was at a place called Kell Well, near Alkburrow, where I got a great many pretty stones, being a kind of the astroites or starr-stones. There is many of them also at Whitten, on the cliffs, and in Coalby beck. The country people have a Strange name for them, and call them kestles and postles, which somewhat sounds like Christ and his Apostles.'”
Despite the lack of firm records of its age. The surrounding land has certainly been occupied for millennia. At Kell Well there have also been found Neolithic flint arrowheads and a stone axe head, flint arrowheads and other finds and as such is the oldest prehistoric remains in a village brimming with fascinating relics. In the grounds of nearby Walcot Hall was found a Bronze Age beaker and a pot of Roman coins suggesting a Romano-British settlement there. Indeed, a geophysical survey of Walcot Hall in 2003 did show the remains of a Romano-British ladder settlement.
Other remains linked to the local Iron Age tribe Corieltauvi who became Roman civitas and 1st to 4th A.D century pottery shreds have been found in fields south of Countess Close A view exposed in William Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum; Or, An Account of the Antiquities, and Remarkable Curiosities in Nature Or Art, Observed in Travels Through Great Britain (1776) which suggests that Alkborough’s name comes from this Roman settlement deriving from Aquis such as Buxton’s Aquis arnemetia. Now this might suggest that there was a Roman cult here associated with the spring (either this or the Low wells near the church). However, the agreed origin is from personal name Aluca or Alca and Old English berg referring to a hill such as ‘Alca’s hill’. Indeed the earliest record is in the Domesday book as Alchebarge.
Trimmer and Andrew Guide and Handbook to Winteringham & District (1912) note that:
“The waters of the spring were thought to have petrifying qualities but these seem to be lost; the water is certainly chalybeate, and most people who visit the well..(make a wish) after drinking the water.”
There is some confusion here because it is certainly still petrifying and there is no sign of chalybeate iron rich waters. It is also confusing whether it refers to to wishing as a custom or just a reflex! However, one piece of folklore which is perhaps significant. It is said that by drinking its water it would keep the drinker in the village for the rest of their life. This folklore motif is perhaps records of a ritual at the well to confirm loyalty. Considering that the name of the well derives from O.N kell or keld for ‘spring’ perhaps from the Saxon settlement time. Lincolnshire is poorly recorded in their folklore so sadly there is probably more about it we don’t know.
The present stone work appears to be fairly modern but the action of calcification is already apparent and the flow considerable. Small fossilised sections can be found in the stream and it is evident from this ebay site that people still associate the site with those ancient crinoids.
Today walking along the cliff path, through the woods and down towards the spring one can imagine the generations which have come here to venerate the spring and its hard water.
If I was to be asked ‘take me’ to a classic holy well, one which had that romantic and mysterious feel and remained in the 21st century still a place of solitude and contemplation, one site I would suggest is St Cuby’s Well at Duloe. Throw in the fact nearby is the presence of an ancient church and a unique quartz stone circle and the site certainly has its attractions to the antiquarian.
In Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall by Mabel Quiller-Couch (1894) tells us:
“In the parish of Duloe, on the road which leads from Sandplace to Duloe Church, at one time stood the consecrated well of St. Cuby… The well of St. Cuby was a spring of water on the left hand side of the above road, which flowed into a circular basin of granite, carved and ornamented round the edge with the figures of dolphins, and on the lower part with the figure of a griffin; it is in shape somewhat like a font, with a drain for the carrying off of the water.”
The well is first mentioned in land documents appearing as La Welle with the valley Kippiscomebe according to Lane-Davies being Cuby’s combe being originally Cub’s combe.
Why was St. Cuby?
St. Cybi (Cuby) founded a monastic settlement within ‘Caer Gybi,’ being born 480 AD at Callington near Plymouth. His father was a Cornish Chieftain and great grandson of Cystennin Gorneu, King Arthur’s grandfather. He was a well connected saint, his mother Gwen, was sister of Non, St. David’s mother. He decided not to follow in his family footsteps and being a chieftain and so became a Christian monk travelling to Gaul establishing religious centres with his disciples. He returned to Cornwall settled at Tregony living in a cell next to a well. Quiller-Couch (1894) notes:
“This saint, who has been called also Keby by some of his biographers, was the son of Solomon, a Christian king or chieftain of Cornwall. According to the Rev. S. Baring-Gould, Solomon was a son of Geraint, and his wife was a sister of St. Non. St.Cuby at an early age gave himself up to learning and religion ; he renounced all claim to his father’s kingdom, to which he undoubtedly had the right, in favour of his brother’s family, and settled at Tregony for a short time, after which he visited Ireland, and finally went to Anglesea, where he died.”
Traditions of the well
According to Helen Fox in her Cornish Saints and holy wells the well’s water cured TB, Scurvy and rheumatism although I am unsure where this piece of folklore is derived from. The most well-known piece is quoted by Quiller-Couch wo states that:
“The well at one time was very much respected, and treated with reverence by the neighbouring people, who believed that some dire misfortune would befall the person who should attempt to remove it. Tradition says that a ruthless fellow once went with a team of oxen for the purpose of removing the basin ; on reaching the spot one of the oxen fell down dead, which so alarmed the man that he desisted from the attempt.”
In Mrs Peel’s Our Cornish Home, it is said that the basin was broken when it was rolled down Kippiscombe by drinken workmen and it came to rest beside a cottage of an old lady who heard the Piskeys laughing over it all night.
Quiller-couch notes that:
“In spite of this tradition, however, the basin has been moved, probably when the new road was cut, and was taken to the bottom of the woods ‘on the Trenant estate ; it is now placed in Trenant Park.”
This story of the well is told in more details in In the Old Cornwall Journal of April 1928 the story is told that so strong was the superstition attached to the basin that when the squire (Wm Peel d 1871) wished to move it into Trenant Park for preservation about 1863 he had to pledge himself firmly to provide the pensions for the families of any who fell dead before the carters would took the stone. Of this font one now must travel to the church being returned in 1959 when it returned to the parish. It is a remarkable relic with a snake, griffin and dolphin on the bowl’s rim. It certainly looks pre-medieval.
Recently as it spreads across Cornwall (and beyond) the well have become a rag well or as it might be called locally clootie well.
The well today
The well is made of granite ashlar with a gabled end and roof constructed of large blocks of granite with a rounded head arched entrance with an ancient Celtic cross above the door. There are two cells the outer one has a stone seat but its a cramped location to wait. The inner well house is built into the bank and has a round-headed arch to the inner well house room which has corbelled walls and a flat stone roof. The well is thought to be 15th century but its present state owes to be restored by a former Rector The Rev. Dr, Barrington Ward around 1822 when the nearby road was built and remains a delightfully well preserved granite well chapel. Despite being close to a road it is a peaceful spot shrouded by bushes and resembles a grotto where within you can be devoid of the world outside as it is dark; very little light penetrates through! The water now seeps from the side and flows into the floor of the second chamber. It is clear and flowing although it had a dead mole in it! Despite this it is a remarkable place.
The parish of Easter Coker, near Yeovil, in Somerset, is fortunate to have a wealth of springs and sources. In the 1920s two springs, at Burton in the north of the parish (5332 1384) and in Coker Court Park to the south (5335 1233), met the needs of the majority of homes. There are stories that during the first world war village men patrolled these springs to guard against German spies poisoning the water. A few homes, notably at Foxholes and on Lodge Hill, are still supplied by spring water.
Sadly, some of these springs and streams have been piped underground. At the hamlet of Nash the spring is called Peter’s Hole (5387 1375; can anyone help explain this name?) The stream runs from the source through the now vanished hamlet of Sheepslake and into North Coker Park, a 19th century creation, where the water emerges as an overgrown pond behind iron railings then dips back underground where it used to meet a hydraulic ram that lifted the water up into tanks in the roof of North Coker House.
Going back in time, the Roman villa site at East Coker is situated close to a spring (5472 1393) that rises to the north of Dunnock’s Lane and trickles down to the cottages at Patchlake. A footpath flows this little stream along its course to Paviotts Mill in Coker Moor. Across the moor near Davole Farm (on Private land: 5524 1211) is what appears to be a little dew pond, but may be a spring called the Beauty spring (B.A Hackwell The story of our village 1953 p6.) rising there, close to the road from Sutton Bingham, an ealden herepath or ‘old army road’ according to a 9th century charter.
In the village of East Coker itself the spring in Coker Court Park (see above) runs down from an overgrown reservoir where villagers could once collect water from a pump, and through the broken remains of a stone-edged pond that might once have supplied the oce for an ice house in a field at the other end of the track across the park. The stream then meanders round to west wells where, in the front garden of one of these cottages, there is a medieval stone washing place which can be seen from the road. The stream then runs along the roadside past the Helyar Arms pub, before doubling back and making its way across the moor.
In Coker Moor itself is ne of the most impressive wells in the parish, known as Blackwells (5497 1302), where the rusty-coloured water of this chalybeate spring bubbles to the surface to fill a small stone surrounded pond or drinking place for cattle, built by a local farmer. Blackwells water is said to be good for eyes. It can be approached from the telephone kiosk in North Coker where you go down a rough track called Moor Lane, past the sewage works until you reach a gate to a large field called Moor Field. Walk around the edge of the field in either direction and you will come to Blackwells in the far corner. The farmer allows access to this field and it is a popular place for villagers to walk.
In the far south-western corner of the parish of East Coker is the hamlet of Lyatts where a beautiful spring constantly flows out of a hedge bank (5233 1184) past a few withies and an impromptu pond, before tumbling out and under the road through Lyatts, running downhill towards Hardington in the next parish. Whilst not prepossessing to look at with its yellow plastic pipe, the boundary of the parish of East Coker cuts across to this little spring which must have been important feature in the landscape. The place-name Lyatts is believed to be all that remains of the Saxon hundred of ‘Liet/Licget’ meaning ‘lych-gate’. The spring is easily reached as it lies along a footpath, only a stone’s throw from the gate at Lyatts.
Two springs at Primrose Hill on the western edge of the parish (5292 1280) feed a little stream that runs down to Halves Lane. It is on this hillside, up above Primrose Hill Farm, that the holywell field names occur on a 1819 map of the parish. In amongst these are Bridles mead and Bridles orchard – in 1770 the former is listed as ‘Bridewells mead’. I have heard that earlier in this century there was even a spring rising in the road here. A footpath takes you across the fields, close to these sources, and follows the stream for part of the way downhill to Halves Lane. If the name Bridewells is original (and not, say, the name of the farmer who owned the field), it is interesting to note that in the Middle Ages, Bride or Bridget was a popular saint in Somerset, with a cult centring on Glastonbury; and thus he wells may have been dedicated to her. Or it might be a dim memory of the pagan goddess Briga.
At the foot of Primrose Hill, and a good place to finish this description, is the Holy well itself, which can be found in the hamlet of Holywell, on the boundary between East and West Coker (5295 1325) Here the spring rises to the north side of the Foresters Arms pub, next to the footpath leading across to Burton. Dom Ethelbert Horne visited the well while preparing his book on the holy wells of Somerset, and described it in the following words:
“The well itself is a plentiful spring, the water coming through a pipe and falling between some great stones. These are squared and dressed stones, some of them being large steps, and they may have been part of a building in former times. No tradition, that I could find, existed in the neighbourhood as to why this place is called Holywell, nor were the waters considered ‘good for eyes’. Indeed, when I asked an old lady on the spot, who had come to dip up some of the water if it was good for anything on particular she replied ‘Yes for making tea!’ She added that across the moor was a spring the water for which was ‘good for the eyes’. The directions for finding this well were so vague that I did not make the search.”
(Ethelbert Horne Somerset holy wells, London 1923, p35)
The other well mentioned to Dom Ethelbert by the old lady was the one known as Blackwells. The wells of East Coker are modest ones – both in their scale and their seclusion – but deserve the rediscovery of a visitor’s or a pilgrims’ eye
originally published in Source New Series 3 Spring 1995
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.
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.
Most of the Belgian wells (about 300) spring in the countryside; and mainly in the French-speaking region. However towns are not unprovided by them.
So, in order to get a general idea let us be allowed to focus only on some of the them i.e on some of those to which healing power is attributed by tradition. They very often gave birth to cults or rites and generated enthusiastic pilgrimages surviving for centuries, consequently illustrating the depth of popular credulity in the past as at the present time.
If these fontaines merveilleuses are, in most cases, hidden away at the end of paths twisting through fields and woods, they are of easy reach in villages and towns. Occasionally, they may be fed by a hand pump. Sometimes, a chapel enhances the importance of the spot. These are determined by the zone of emergence of the miraculous source, according to the legend or life of the saint to whom it is closely related. Some names occur in the hagiography, whereas other names, taking into account dialectal pronunciations, became quite modified. Shall we dare say that some are simply apocryphal?
As a rule in Belgian villages, wells are situated alongside roads but can easily escape notice. Let us cite a few examples.
A Scots (Irish) Monk, named Monon (ob. circa 636) built a hut in solitude and sielence near the remote fons Nasiana or Nasonoa (now called Nassogne). Later on, Pepin the Short. Charlemagne’s father, who is aid to have caused a source to gush force there, in thankfulness for the kindness of God through Monon’s intercession came back to the lonely placed to richly endow the pious monk’s sanctuary. Nowadays, only an engraved slab modesty commemorates this fruit of a rather queer superstition of two medieval legends. Hence the pretty name of ‘Source de la Pepinette’
Another example is Saint Fredegan’s Well, hidden under the foundation of a house at Mousteir-sur-Sambre. It was supposed to cure children of tuberculosis or to improve their locomotion. They had to drink water from the spring. Some could be washed, dipped or even dressed with wet clothes. This out-of-the way tradition begun ‘a longe tyme ago’.
The most talked-of holy well in Belgium is undoubtedly found in the village of Banneux, near Verviers ie not far from the German border. This is an international centre of pilgrimage, devoted to the virgin after she appeared there in 1933. Thousands of hopeful pilgrims and tired day-trippers come mainly on summer sunny days to visit the chapel and gaze for a while at the neighbouring source topped by Mary’s statue. The water is renowned as miraculous.
At Bouval, horses are blessed, watered and well-groomed every August 24 at St Bartholomew’s Well. At this occasion, a procession takes place in the open country.
Saint Roch is believed to have cured himself of the plague after washing at the source at the village of Harnoncourt, so the legend tells. Ever since, the neighbourhood as always been preserved from epidemics. Once raised to the ground, the saint’s statue which formerly adorned the old washing-place, had been replaced. It has been set above the renovated fountain (1976). The odd thing about the well is that various personifications of the water (such as sprite monsters, undines, water people and cintry-people) are also present in a decorative manner. Pilgrims yearly come on August 15 to drink the water and to pray.
A cube shaped fountain, bearing the name of Saint Lawrence, whose cult is widespread, has been built below the church of Patagne-la-Grande. Its fresh water, people say, is a sovereign for burns, the saint having perished on a gridiron. There as at some other places, wells associate the Christian cult with the realities of peasant life.
Every year, also on August 15, a curious tradition is maintained at Saint Lawrence a village in the Namur district, with a procession and pageant in the saint’s honour. This gives the villages the opportunity for villagers dressed as soldiers to soak their points of their swords of the butts of their rifles into Saint Lawrence’s well water.
In the same province, it is said that a certain Lupicin, having three times driven his stick into the ground at Lustin, sprouted out three sources which fed Saint Lupicin’s Well. On Whit-Monday, pilgrims invoke him for headaches.
Since the eighteenth century, lots of pilgrims – hoping for the best – go to Marcourt (Province of Luxembourg) where Saint Theobald’s well, hidden in a wood, is supposed to be miraculous. After drinking the water, washing and in some cases filling bottles, devout folks stick crosses (made from two small branches of wood) into the ground as votive offerings. Should young girls walk three times in silence round the chapel, they will become engaged within the year.
At Vielsam in the same province, Saint Gengoux, killed by his wife’s sweetheart in the year 760 is paradoxically evoked for a couple’s union. This source is conceived by naïve lovers as the right spot for pilgrimage, not only against rheumatism and eye disorders, but also to plight one’s troth. That sounds silly, doesnt it? A useful wariness should be observed, for everyone knows how dodgy this may sometimes be!
Some of the many lavoirs (public washing places) situated in the southern and eastern parts of Belgium have been connected, too. in the course of time, to a particular cult. For instance, at Laneffe, horses are yearly invited to drink the water which is thought go have a beneficial effect on animals. . Whereas, at Villers-devant-Orval, those who suffer sorrows or finger infections evoke Saint Gengoux’s aid at his washing-place.
Other holy wells can also be seen in more or less extraordinary spots, even near the sad walls of a cemetery (Villers-la-Bonne-Eaux). Several, seated along side houses in picturesque surroundings, often date from Celtic times and are concealed far from indiscrete at Couture-Saint-Germain, on a hidden hillside in the open country and next to a chapel. Slow-growing children are taken there by distressed parents asking for relief with a glimmering of hope in their eyes. The pilgrimage is traditionally linked with various dipping of chemisettes and sick lambs. Three times linens must be dropped into the water, and the chapel passed round many times; and it is piointless to controvert established opinion.
Woods too, especially in the southern part of the Walloon region, including several holy wells. Charming legends are common, but many are no better known then the old story of King Alfred and the cakes is by today’s British computerised undergraduates. Some are not very easy to discover whilst others are found on the outskirts of villages or close by.
The goal of an annual pilgrimage since 1855 (for skin diseases), the small Saint Meen’s Fountain, near Couvin can be encountered at the verge of the wood. It is the only Belgian sanctuary consecrated to this Irish preacher much noted in Brittany (6th cent.)
We cannot forget, of course, to mention the other old fountain of Bellefontaine (Ardennes) designed for the purpose of commemorating Saint Furcy, another Irish priest (7th cent). They say he stayed there after having made a well spring out from his rod. In the past pious pilgrimage were very popular there, but in our hectic days, the dried up source is forlorn and does not attract anybody.
Others too, suffering loneliness and loss of interest, ceased to be hospitable and are no more alas! what used to be sic transit gloria mundo as we all know.
First published in Source Holy Wells Journal New Series No 3 Spring 1995
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.
It is a small community. Blink and you’d miss it on the way to Penistone. It does appear to be able to agree on its name Midhope cum Langsett or Midhopestones? There’s an even smaller church, really a chapel and even smaller congregation. But what it lacks in size it certainly makes up with atmosphere and devotion – no other church in the region blesses its wells without a dressing. Furthermore it boasts two of the county’s more substantial healing springs.
Springing from somewhere?
The history of the custom is an obscure one. There is record of this being a revival. When it was revived local people who recall it being done in their lifetime and local belief is that the blessing of the well was done in the 1800s. Perhaps like the Bisley well blessings it was the brainchild of a local High Church clergyman who wanted to return a bit of colour back into these mundane mining landscapes. Sadly despite the conviction of this being an old tradition nothing is written down to support the view. Sadly, the only history of the area Joseph Kenworthy’s (1935) The Lure of Midhope-cum-Langsett fails to mention it although it does discuss St. James Well. Mind you it is worth noting he does not refer to the Potters well so it might not have been that comprehensive. Indeed he does state that the customs of the village have not been recorded. Was he hinting something?
“At Nether Midhope in the Precincts of the Manorial Homestead of Midhope-in-Waldershelf, may have been held in superstitious reverence long before Anglo-Saxon, Dane or Norman came on the scene” (Kenworthy)”.
It is worth noting that Joseph Kenworthy was apparently a local historian in this area however he does not appear to have written or discovered a great deal about the well. The genuine belief of its age suggests to me that this was a revived custom otherwise well dressing would have been done instead or as well when it returned. As it was across this part of South Yorkshire at Dore, Norton – itself in 1972 and close by in Penistone. Tony Foxworthy Folklore of Yorkshire (2008) states that the two well are dressed in June. However, I cannot find any corroboration of this in the usual sources such as Nayor and Porter’s Well dressing book! This suggests an older origin to me.
Rob Wilson (1990) in his Holy Wells and spas of South Yorkshire notes that the custom was revived on the 1st October 1972 but appears now to be fixed firmly on the third Sunday of September. Why this date was chosen is unclear as it is not a patronal day or a date associated with well customs. He also notes that both wells are “decorated rather than dressed’ however this aspect of the custom does appear to have fallen into abeyance. The chapel now appears to be dressed in bouquets and wreaths and makes an evocative site.
Holy and healing springs
Oddly very little is known of St. James’s Well but the Potter’s well on which the plaque reads:
“A spring harnessed in 1720 when Midhope Old Pottery was built south-east of the bridge by M.W Gough, Potter. It is said the troughs came from the manorial hall. Until 1919, it was the only water source in Nether Midhope.”
“A publication of approximately 20 years ago gives some additional information about the Potter’s well: The water in this well was known as Idle Water it is known fact that you can boil an egg in it but it wont face another one.”
The spring was believed to be healing one:
“it is very fine add to children who suffer with whooping cough. Take a pint from the well, and give the patient a sip each day until it is gone and the result is a good recovery.”
Such customs can easily disappear from a parish as quickly as they begin, often being the initiative of an enthusiastic curate, who dies or moves on and the new incumbent either fails to keep it up or in some cases in openly in opposition to the custom. This is certainly true of the Church of England. And certainly true of customs associated with wells…the celebration of which is not to everyone’s taste. Fortunately, the revival was due to an Anglo-Catholic incumbent and the ministry here has remained High Church ever since….it’s probably unlikely to change and so the custom remains safe.
I arrived in the small village just as the service had started in the delightful old chapel of St. James. The lane up to it was packed with cars such that passing along it was difficult. Indeed at one point a combine harvester wanted to pass and came millimetres from the wing mirror of a parked car – I should think they are used to that around there.
I came into the chapel just as the Canon was discussing holy wells and was remarking about Harrogate and Buxton and what was known of their holy well, St. James. After around 40 minutes of the service the congregation assembled outside with the Loxley Silver band.
On this autumn afternoon, the weakness of the sun can be felt, leaves are beginning to fall….the bright red colour and sounds of the Locksley Brass Band give a vibrant jab in the arm on a grey afternoon. The hymn O Praise Ye the Lord is sung heartily at the entrance to the lane where the well is located. The band remained at the road way as the congregation lead by the clergy walked down the well. The well is located below this lane and is accessed by a gate and steps…down into a very muddy field…not surprisingly many of the attendees watched the ceremony from lane above. The well itself is surrounded by metal railings. One of the clergy stated we can get inside and opened a gate and one by one they entered. It is not a large enclosure and I wondered if they were attempting some sort of world record ‘how many clergy can we get in an enclosed space.’ Once there the following was recited:
“ Bless the Lord all created things, Sing his praise and exalt him forever, O Let the earth bless the Lord, Sing his praise and exalt him forever, Bless the Lord you mountains and hills, Sing his praise and exalt him forever, Bless the Lord all that grows in the ground, Sing his praise and exalt him forever.”
A porcelain cup was produced and at this point the Venerable Steve Wilcockson bent down and parting the green slime on the surface filled it with remarkably clean water. Fortunately he did not partake in it but upon saying the blessing poured the water to libate the well and effectively make it holy again! The blessing went:
“We give thanks to the Virgin Mary, Jesus St Paul, St Peter, John the Baptist and particular St James under who’s patron this well brings forth water and brings it to this water to the parish….In the faith of Jesus Christ we dedicate this well to the glory of god, in the honour of St James, in the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost. Heavenly father, we thank you for the gift of water to refresh the earth and make things grow Bless hallow and sanctify this well.”
The group then traipse down the hill to the other well – the Potter’s Well – a decidedly more secular affair. Here the water was drawn by the canon and then poured to the ground again. Here not only was the well blessed but so was the Parish. The band was put to fine use with the playing of the Hymn Glorious things of these are spoke and then the National Anthem was sung and everyone retired to a light tea at that other great British institution – the pub!
A brief custom but a delightful one. Just as the celebration finished an out of breath man arrived ready with his camera…”have I missed it?” He had…but it’ll be on next year, the community clear recognise the importance of their waters. I cannot agree more when Wilson (1990) notes:
“An event such as decorating and blessing a well requires very little financial outlay, and whatever money is spent is amply compensated for by the enjoyment and community spirit which the event engenders. Bradfield Parish council must be congratulated for their vision and initiative. Other councils take note.”