October 2021 marks 10 years of blogging about holy and healing wells. The site now has 374 blog posts over 193 pages and thus thousands springs and wells recorded.
So each month I plan to do something a bit special for the next year or so. Ten years on from the first blog post and 10 books on I thought I could celebrate with a special downloadable volume XI – Holy wells and healing springs of Rutland – for a limited time only!
In this article to celebrate 10 years of blogging I am selecting 10 of the best sites I have discovered and detailed since I had begun blogging on the topic
The Monk’s Well, Southam – Nothing can prepare you for what I could describe the most unusual of all holy wells. Hidden deep in the landscape and under a nondescript metal cover a deep shaft of squared stone plunges deep into the ground to a small well chamber below.
‘St Helen’s Well’, my house! I had to include this one as it is a possible holy well under my own house. Read how I discovered the spring and how the name of the house is suggestive of an ancient and lost St Helen’s Well
St. Anne’s Well, Brough. Often a name of a ‘unknown’ well on a map leads the explorer to discover a boggy hole overgrown and difficult to image its importance. Here a few miles out of Buxton and in the shadow of a Roman fort is a well which appears have been missed by many researchers but well built and likely to be very significant,
Lady’s Well, Mansfield. This time a site which all authorities had recorded had been lost for good and attempts by ‘English heritage’ failed to find it. A bit of local field work and contacting local people and low and behold one can find the best preserved Nottinghamshire holy well…hopefully news of a residential development on the site will not result in its final demise!
Lady’s Well, Wombourne. In this case a site which is well recorded but appeared to have disappeared off maps and thus thought to have gone. A bit of looking at older maps and field work revealed not only a magically placed site but a remarkable example of a natural spring carefully improved by past generations to create sometime quite evocative.
St Peter’s Well, Peterchurch. A slightly different affair this one. When I first visited in the 1990s it was a forlorn site with the bath filled in with concrete and all that could be seen was the head through which the water once flowed (and had been tanked). Roll forward 30 odd years and community action had restored the site wonderfully back to what it first looked like – a bit of a triumph.
Holiwell, Odell. Bedfordshire is a county not fully explored by holy well researchers and one I am slowly working through. This site again I had found an old photo and worked out its location as a likely place. Expecting to be wrong or find the site gone I was amazed to find it almost exactly as it was in the photo…well almost.
St Mary’s Well, Rhuddlan. I cannot claim to have discovered this as its quite prominent at the front of the stately house which is Bodrhyddan Hall but I didnt expect to find such a splendid building over the spring.
St Chad’s Well, Brettenham. It is probably not a St Chad’s well not an estate spring made into a folly holy well. Nevertheless a fascinating site.
St Christopher’s Well, Denton. Again another grotto and is an overgrown wilderness that appeared to lay unvisited for many years…it still had old pre decimal coins in it.
In 2018 I took over the Source Archive which digitally stored the articles from the Source Journal (old series) established by Mark Valentine, Source (new series) edited by Roy Fry and Tristan Gray Hulse and the Living Spring journal established by Richard Penderick who had held onto the archive at Bath University.
The archive has been an invaluable resource but the observant would not know that certain articles were missing and when I took over the archive I stated that I would try to make these available digitally for the first time since in this month’s example since 1994.
Thus at the 10th anniversary of the Insearchofholyandhealingsprings blog site I had decided to complete the task. The first article is a lengthy one so I have decided to divide it into two parts.
This week is a transcription of an article missing from the second of the new series of Source (the first missing) by Professor Charles Thomas:
Antony Charles Thomas, CBE DL FBA FSA FSA Scot was a British historian and archaeologist who was Professor of Cornish Studies at Exeter University, and the first Director of the Institute of Cornish Studies, from 1971 until his retirement in 1991. He was recognised as a Bard of the Cornish Gorseth with the name Gwas Godhyan in 1953. He sadly died in 2016. Again the copyright belongs to the author I shall remove if anyone from his estate requests so.
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
Over most of Cornwall, the word ‘well’ is used to describe both artificial-dug vertitical shaft, and a natural spring, whether flowing or static. The traditional ‘holy wells’ of Cornwall are seldom more than a foot or so deep, and can be nothing more than water issuing from the ground or from a rock. In Cornish, a single word normally surfices for both well and spring (OE funten, MC fenten, ModC fenton cf OB funton, ModB feunteum) derived form the Latin fontana, and apparently superseding some such purely Celtic word as that represented by the OC pol ‘pool, well’ The strict term for a dug well, Mod C pyth dialect peeth seems to be confined to domestic usage and does not occur in place names as far as is known.
The wells described in this chapter are all of some age, and have some claim to be regarded as ‘holy’ or ‘lucky’ in the broad sense, while at least three of them are, or were, thought to possess medicinal virtues. In no way can this be claimed to be a complete catalogue of which wells in the parish and there must be many others unknown to the writer – indeed unknown to anyone except the few people who live near them. The selection discussed below nevertheless forms a good representative group, such as may be found in most parishes in west Cornwall. These wells are shown on the map, and their eight-figure National Grid references are listed at the end of this chapter, as many of these wells have never been distinguished on the Ordnance Survey sheets.
- Vincent’s Well This is a copious natural spring which forms one of the sources of the Red River. It can be found, with some difficulty, on the so called Bolenowe Moors (actually a marsh with heavy scrub undergrowth), and is still esteemed in Bolenowe as being of great antiquity, and as possessing water of healing qualities. An old and choked lane leads to it from the farmlands of the Forrest tenement of Illogan, and the well itself seems to be just on the Ilogan side of the Camborne-Illogan bound. The spring issues out from under some horizontal granite slabs. Charles Henderson visited vincent;s well in the 1930s, though he confused it with fenton Io (no. 10 below) He wrote ‘ It is famous throughout the district for its healing qualities especially with regard to the eyes. One old man asserted that doctors had frequently taken some of its waters away to London (this claim is repeated to the writer at Bolenowe in 1962 by several ladies of the village)’…The spring is most difficult to find and approach….it is a fine clear copious spring issuing from the ground, and there are no traces of any building covering it….’Vincent’s Well must be carefully distinguished from ‘Vincent’s Shute’, the name of a spring and watercourse behind the house in Bolenowe village occupied (1962) by the Vincent family. In the case of Vincent’s Well, the Vincent part is probably, as in field-names, a corruption of the Cornish word fenton,
- Newton Moor Well A mile or so down the Red River Valley from Vincent’s Well there is a large patch of uncleared ‘moor’ resting on a bed of decomposed gravel. In the middle of Newton Moor, just south-east of the present Newton Farm, is this well; not very deep, but it has never been known to run dry, even in drought and is enclosed in a high granite structure on top of which is a cast-iron Victorian pump. In front of the well is a paved area of square granite blocks. There is no reason to think that this well is regarded as either holy or medicinal, but it is included here to avoid any further confusion about the well on Newton Moor, and the genuine holy well (no 10 below) on the other Newton tenement at Troon.
- Well at Peter James’ Carwynnen In an open space among several little holdings at Carwynnen, the best-known of which is sometimes named after a recent occupier (Mr P. James), there is a small shallow well enclosed in an arched or covered edifice of rude granite blocks. It is shown here as an instance of a number of wells in the southern half of the parish, all of which are probably medieval in origin. There is a very similar one (4 The Reens Well). In the lower part of the valley called ‘The Reens’, just east of the road from Killoivose to Treslothan, which once served a now vanished farm called ‘Rocks’ or ‘Rock’s farm’ and the writer remembers as a boy seeing yet another somewhere in the woodlands of Pendarves park.
- Treslothan Well The little spring in the central area of Treslothan village, hidden behind a battered iron door, is enclosed in a handsome Gothic arch, and would look more at home in a Breton hamlet than in a Cornish one. Despite the appearance of weathered antiquity, this is really Victorian, a tasteful shrine constructed at the same time as the model village of Treslothan. Visitors sometimes assume wrongly, but understandably that this is a holy well of great age.
- Silver Well No one seems to know where this picturesque name cam from. The little natural spring is so called lies immediately below, and on the west side of, the enclosed public footpath across the former Pendarves Woods at the Stennack – a footpath which runs from the lane behind the vicarage at Treslothan, across a style iontpo the field called Hound close and joins the road from Stennark to Carwynnen Water (Lower Cardwynnen) opposite a modern bungalow. The site is now choked by brushwood resulting from tree felling operations, and few people except some elderley persons in the locality could even locate this spring. Thirty years ago, the write could remember it being a lucky well into which pins had to be thrown for a wish, and it gave its name to Silver Well Lane, the upper part of the roadway from Stennack to Lower Carwynnen.
Part two to include Maudlin Well, Sandcot Well, Fenton-Ia and Bodryan Well
Mysterious creatures of springs and wells – The fairies, St. Cuthbert’s Well and the Luck of Edenhall
Fairies are often associated with springs for reasons I have explored previously but in this small Cumbrian village is a site associated with a famous legend involving fairies who frequented St. Cuthbert’s Well. William Hutchinson’s The History of the County of Cumberland started that
“In the garden, near to the house, is a well of excellent spring water, called St. Cuthbert’s well (the church is dedicated to the saint). This glass is supposed to have been a sacred chalice: but the legendary tale is, that the butler, going to draw water, surprised a company of fairies who were amusing themselves upon the green, near the well: he seized the glass, which was standing upon its margin; they tried to recover it; but, after an ineffectual struggle, flew away, saying,
If that glass either break or fall,
Farewell the luck of Edenhall.”
The glass in question is an ‘old painted drinking glass, called the Luck of Edenhall’ which was first mentioned in the Will of Sir Philip Musgrave in 1677. The legend became immortalised in poetry by Ludwig Uhland and Longfellow . The true origins of the chalice is that it was probably originated in the middle east and perhaps was brought back by crusaders in the 14th century being made in Egypt or Syria.
Whatever the origin the association with misfortune was apparently taken seriously by subsequent owners of the Hall. A Reverend William Mounsey of Bottesford records in 1791 in The Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1791 noted that it was carefully locked away and few were allowed to see it. This certainly worked as when the Musgraves owned the house the faeries’ promise was kept and the house and family were successful. However, upon selling the house in 1900, the family kept hold of their ‘luck’. Thirty-four years later the house was demolished!
It seems to me that there is much to de-clutter from this legend and I would suggest that it probably obscures Catholic practices at the house after the reformation. The collection of water from a holy well suggests water being collected for religious worship and certainly the Luck could be seen as a vessel for sacrament for secrete services at the house. The association with fairies a legend to keep curious protestant onlookers away…and indeed even today very few people visit the well; laying as it does on private property…..finding a photo has not been possible…the fairies minus their vessel can enjoy the solitude. The Luck today resides at the V and A museum in London.
It is not clear whether St. Bride’s Well takes its name from St. Bride’s Church constructed in 11th century. Certainly the name Brydewell is noted in property owned by the Bishop of St David’s in 1487. The Palace of Bridewell was built nearby and thus Stow (1598) notes:
“fell to ruine, insomuch that the verie platform thereof remyned for great part wast, and as it were, but a layestall of filth and rubbish; only a fayre Well remained there… until King Henry the 8 builded a stately and beautiful house thereupon, giving it to name Bridewell’”
The well was outside of the church until the 15th century rebuilding when it was incorporated into the south-east corner of the church. Hone (1826–7), who says:
“the last public use of the water of St Bride’s well drained it… Several men were engaged in filling thousands of bottles, a day or two before the 19th of July 1821, on which day his majesty, King George IV was crowned at Westminster from the cast-iron pump over St Bride’s well, in Bride-Lane.”
I was informed by Mr. Eric Davies informed me that the well ran dry after an enterprising local pub landlord decided to sell water from the well and perhaps this is what Hone above alludes to. The nearby Bridewell Baths were said to have been filled by the spring’s waters explaining perhaps the poor quality of the water. In the crypt museum is a pump tap said to be from the well.
According to Mr. Davies it was the custom to use the water from the well as holy water, to sprinkle on the route of Coronation Processions from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey, which went along Fleet Street and past the church. Milne (1997) it was ‘still remembered in the early twentieth century as the focus of a formal procession which left the chancel and made its way southwards towards it. A map in the crypt museum notes an unusual feature a south door installed for processions to the well, presumably when the well was at ground level.
After the post-War restoration of the church, the name was assigned to a fountain placed in the northern churchyard, which was removed in 1994. Indeed there appears to be some confusion over what happened to the well and when. Furlong (accessed 2013) states that it disappeared under modern office complexes however the church identify it as being in the crypt and according to Mr. Davies was lost over 100 years ago.
However, according to correspondent the well was still there in the 1970s and was full of water and indeed in the 1990s when a workman was asked whether there was a well there he said there was. However, there is no well to be found at the site in the crypt and indeed the flooring of this chamber appears to be modern. The loss of the well and the adamant statement that the well was there in the 1970s is clearly at odds with the opinion of Mr. Davies who kindly showed me the site. It is possible that the church filled in the well around the 1990s as a response to pagan usage of the crypt and church around St Bride’s Day, in particular the usage of the plane tree said to mark the site of the well and fed off it. The site of the well is shown on maps in the crypt museum be found in the crypt, but not the section which is open to the public.
In the crypt museum the tap from the well which provided a public water supply is shown in one of the museum display cabinets. Outside appears to be an aperture and small trough fed by a pipe which may have been fed from the spring or alternatively from the drains above. One hopes that the mooted but expensive improvements planned to be made to the church will reveal the well once and for all and restore it.
Extracted from Holy Wells and healing springs of London and Middlesex
Hidden down a small lane signposted from the main road is one of the most impressive holy wells in Hampshire and certainly on the Isle of Wight – St Lawrence’s Well. A Victorian chapel well house structure covers the well in a Gothic revival style it is described on the current signage as follows:
“It is a simple structure of local sandstone, surmounted by a cross molline, with the water issuing from a dolphin’s mouth.”
Pevsner’s The Isle of Wight guide records it as:
“Near the entrance to Marine Villa is ST LAWRENCE WELL, an Early Victorian grotto-like structure with finely moulded, heavily hooded Gothic entrance to a rib-vaulted interior.”
The structure being a folly of sorts. The well house was built by the first Earl of Yarborough who was a significant landowner at St Lawrence in the early 1800s although the exact date is unknown. One of the first accounts appears to be Asenath Nicholson’s 1853’s Loose Papers; Or, Facts Gathered During Eight Years’ Residence in Ireland, Scotland, England, France, and Germany which records:
“Two miles from town is St. Lawrence Spring; a gate opens and shows a basin of water which is supplied from a rock; the stream runs through an aperture, and the basin is excavated from the rock, elevated so high that the precious draught is offered without stooping; here upon stone benches, under the shade of trees, the traveller may sit, read, take his lunch, and drink his water at pleasure.”
It had attracted considerable romantic interest in the mid 1800s being compared to deified groves and springs of Hellas and the Sabine springs of ancient Rome. Of course the spring is named after St Lawrence, a third century Roman martyr killed on a gridiron. This is particularly evident in the work St. Lawrence’s Well: A Fragmentary Legend of the Isle of Wight’ by Henry Brinsley Sheriden published in 1845. Which records in a lengthy poem:
“From Ventnor stretching scarce a mile, The loveliest spot on this blessed Isle , And near unto the castled pile ; A little trickling rill doth play, Through the worn rock — and dash its way, Into a basin formed to hold. The crystal stream so pure and cold , Where running through the tunnelled clay , It passes from the light of day. The basin’s like a scallop shell- The fount is called “St. Lawrence ‘ Well .”Art hath done much to deck the place, With carvings and with forms of grace ; The Norman arch is shaded oʻer, By bending willows , and before, The gates are seats for those who tire ; There they may rest , and still admire, The magic beauty of the spot, Which looks like some magician’s grot, And listen to that murmuring sound, The falling water echoes round, And note the dark – leaved ivy winding, Its trailing tendrils there , and binding, Its circling arms around the trees That rock at every passing breeze. And many a heart no doubt hath been, Charmed by the beauty of that scene.”
It was again immortalised in poetry by Albert Midlane’s 1860 The Vecta Garland, and Isle of Wight Souvenir:
“Hail, lovely grotto ! Hail Elysian soil! Thou fairest spot of fair Britannia’s isle.”— Tickell. Turn aside, poor weary traveller, Drink, and be refresh’ d; On these rustic shaded benches, Sit thee down and rest; All around conspires to assure thee, Thou’rt a welcome guest
Sit thee down and I will tell thee, What of late befel; One who came to drink the waters. Of this crystal well,— Streaming from the rocks above us, Where the sea-gulls dwell.
What his name, or birth I wot not, What he did I know; This bright rill of cooling water, Thou to him dost owe; Had he lacked the free-man’s spirit Hidden it would flow.”
Temporary loss of access
The poem goes on to record how access to the site was once restricted by the Earl of Yarborough, it is said as a consequence of ‘various depredations having been committed at the well’. It said that:
“During the summer of 1843, the following lines were written by a person unknown, and placed over the door, which, on being taken down by a gentleman in that neighbourhood, were handed to his Lordship, who was so much pleased with the jeu d’esprit, as to give directions for the Well to be unlocked, and it has ever since been open to the public: —
“This Well, we must own, is most splendidly placed, And very romantic we think it; The water, no doubt, too, would pleasantly taste If we could but get at it, to drink it!”
We wish that the person who owneth this Well, May walk a long way, and get ‘ knocked up;’ And then, if its pleasant or not, he can tell, When he comes to some water that’s lock’d up !”
Access was restored because no mention of it is made in William Henry Davenport Adam’s Nelson’s 1864 Hand-Book to the Isle of Wight
“On the road, to the right, in a recess under a Gothic arch, and overshadowed by some fine trees, bubbles and gushes most refreshingly an abundant spring, long celebrated as St. Lawrence’s Well. The quaint little edifice which encloses it was built by the late Earl of Yarborough.”
Permanent loss of water?
My visit after a rather heavy rain period showed no sign of water in well house. The interior which is now looked forever it would appear is very mossy and algae covered and the spout appears to indicate the calcified nature of the water by being encrusted. However there is no water. Yet there is plenty of water nearby and just up the lane a lot of water can he heard entering the drain. Just across from the signpost to the well on the other side of the road is a natural spring head with water emerging romantically from under mossy stones. This clearly was the original source. The original St. Lawrence’s Well? If there was an original of course I feel this site is a romantic invention back invented from the village name. This notwithstanding it is a delightful site.
A well dressed site.
In the 21st century a well-dressing tradition has been established at the site but details have been difficult to find about when it started and whether it will continue after the pandemic. The site has been connected to the Island’s other well-known holy well – Whitwell by a pilgrim path.
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.
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.’
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.
Huntingdonshire attempted a number of spas none really established itself beyond the region and have been largely forgotten, although Hail Weston came the closest. Somersham is a small market town which boasted such a locally well know mineral water which was enabled the town to be developed into a small spa. Local tradition suggests that the water was known and exploited by the Romans and that the medieval Bishops utilised it and brewed beer but I fear there is little to no evidence of this tradition and is purely wishful thinking.
The land were the springs lay was once covered by the Royal Forests of Henry II, III or Edward I, the first official note of these springs appears to have been at the end of the 17th Century. It was rediscovered under the patronage of Dr More, Bishop of Ely (which probably explains the confusion of its medieval use). By 1720, the Duke of Manchester, Lord Hinchingbrook, Dr Wake, Bishop of Lincoln, with all the principal residents in the county, joined in a subscription for erecting a house near the spring, which was fitted up with a bowling green, and other accommodations.
Healing or harming waters?
Even though giddiness, feeling sick and turning stools black were attributed to drinking the water, Cambridge Physicians continued to prescribe it to their patients. It soon attracted many people from the nearby villages and orders from across East Anglia, such as Norfolk and Lincolnshire. The water was bottled and drank not only medicinally but as a good table water mixed with wine. However, the popularity of the spa was short and after people began suffering from stone or gravel(or kidney stones as we would call them) after drinking the water and some died. As such a rumour spread around that it caused such diseases supported by some experts in the field! This spelt the end of the spa and the house fell into ruin and its materials removed.
However, there was a revival in 1750 by a Dr Daniel Peter Layard, who was physician to the Princess Dowager of Wales. Another subscription was raised, supported by a respectable list of subscribers which include various physicians and even the King and Queen. Concerned by its side effects, between 1751 to 1767 tests were conducted tried to discover why it occasionally had a detrimental effect. By 1758, a management committee of thirteen subscribers was established who set up rules. set of rules documented. The spa opened between 5.00am to 7.00am for the poor, and until 12.00 noon for everyone else. A notice posted up at the time says:
“The springs are open from seven in the morning till 10 at night, the following being the charges: Admission for using and drinking the waters per month……5 0, Non-scribers……..0 6, Talking any quantity away from the wells per quart…….0 6”
Dr Layard erected a bath house and proper accommodation near the spring and rules were set out for the use of the spa. In 1767 Dr Layard wrote an account of the waters:
However, Dr. Layard left soon after and by 1820 the site was little regarded and probably closed by 1840. For many years, only foundations remained, but this were ploughed up when a local farmer planted fruit trees.
The site rediscovered
According to Burn-Murdock, curator of the Norris Museum, St. Ives, their exact location is unknown. However, there is a site marked Spring (Chalybeate) on the appropriate O/S on Bathe Hill on the road to Somersham which would likely be the location of the spa and as it stated spring I was hopeful of some remains.
Upon visiting nothing can be seen at the site, presently the garden of a house on the hill. Upon visiting the house the owner was accommodating enough to point to a flower bed where he believed was the approximate location for the spring, although he had not seen any evidence. He was told this being the location from a previous owner. However it did not match that which is indicated on the OS map which was in a small orchard. We visited this and equally saw nothing but it was possible some scrub hid it. Perhaps another exploration is needed?