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My memories of Source by James Rattue

Those who are well versed in the subject of holy wells will be aware of James Rattue’s contribution to the subject. His county guides for Kent, Buckinghamshire and Surrey set a high benchmark for such research – including my own – and his magnus opus – The Living Stream: holy wells in historical context (1995) is as it states in one of the intros to his work on the Living Stream  ‘the most detailed and rigorous historical study of holy wells yet published in book format’. He was one of the main contributors to both the first or Old Series and New Series as well as the Living Spring Journal.

The establishment of the old Source magazine in 1985 coincided providentially with my own discovery that there were such things as holy wells. At the distance of over thirty years I can’t now remember quite how I found out about it: I have a memory that I made contact with Mark Valentine about his monograph on Northamptonshire wells and he told me the magazine was about to emerge. What I do remember clearly is the excitement the first edition brought as it plopped through the letterbox, an experience repeated with every one of its eight successors spread over the following few years. There were never enough! And the very first article in that initial, blue-covered, number was Jeremy Harte’s survey of holy wells in my native Dorset. Could it be any better?

Before Source my only guide to the sacred springs of my own county (and pretty much everywhere else) was, for all its shortcomings, RC Hope’s Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England. Bournemouth Central Library had a copy and as I turned its pages during one school summer holiday trying not to crumble the edges too much, I wondered how long it had been since anyone looked at it. Hope only lists six wells in Dorset, and of those, one site, the springs near Shaftesbury which were the subject of the annual Byzant ceremony, aren’t really holy wells of any description, while another, the supposed holy spring at Abbotsbury, doesn’t exist at all. Jeremy’s article in Source 1, however, introduced me to the fact that there were lots and lots of these places.

I wanted to visit them, but it would take years before I managed to chase them down, and by then I would realise that even Jeremy’s list was inadequate and that there were over a hundred named springs (if not holy wells, exactly) in Dorset alone. The probable Holy Well of East Stoke I have only just visited, thirty-five years later; I now know that the time I spent uncovering the featureless spring I thought was the well in 1987 or so, sinking in bog over the top of my wellingtons and snagging my jumper on barbed wire, was wasted apart from using up some calories. I couldn’t have visited the Holy Well of Hazelbury Bryan: that was only dug out of the Dorset mud to celebrate the Millennium fifteen years after Jeremy wrote about it.

My own contributions to Source first appeared in issue 5. Most of them were more detailed accounts of wells that Jeremy had mentioned, with the exception of St Andrew’s Well at Bradpole just north of Bridport, and the format of my pieces was heavily influenced by the way John Meyrick had laid out A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall a little before, meticulously listing the date a site was visited and its map reference. That was all very well, but later on I began to deface the surface of holy well research, already far from pristine, with a variety of unwonted speculations. My article in Source 6 included ‘All Saints’ Well Hordle’ in Hampshire, presumed to be holy on the grounds of its proximity to an ancient church, a fact which at least I had the grace to admit. Issue 7 described ‘All Saints’ Well Thorney Hill’, a well in the grounds of a chapel I generously described as ‘no more than 250 years old’ (in fact it dates to 1906). It’s a nice feature but no one has ever treated it as a holy well of any kind. There was more wishful thinking in issue 8 when I wrote about ‘St Andrew’s Well Corton Denham’ in Somerset, another spring I’d given a sacred identity due to its being near a church. All these speculations resulted from me adopting completely uncritically the idea that pre-Reformation Christians had, wittingly or not, sited their places of worship on previously sacred locations which preserved an ancient awareness of the mystical power of the earth. I hope nobody now uses my descriptions of these ‘holy wells’ as evidence that they ever existed, at least not without heavy caveats!

By the time Source re-emerged in 1994 under the editorship of Tristan Gray-Hulse it was as sceptical about these ideas as I had become. I now knew far more about the field of holy wells and therefore that it was beyond the scope of any small journal to list every one that might be found in a given area, and as if in sympathy, the new Source didn’t try to do this. Instead it concentrated on focused studies of particular sites or motifs that could illustrate wider themes. Tristan must have solicited a contribution from me before the first edition appeared as it carried a piece I’d written about the Holy Well of Frome, created by a Victorian Anglo-Catholic clergyman; it was followed by a short article on the folly-wells of Stourhead and one speculating on the origin of some wells dedicated to St Swithun in a Yorkshire dialect word meaning something completely different. These were all elements in the history of holy wells in which I’d become increasingly interested as I’d discovered that their story was much more complicated than I originally thought. No longer were holy wells merely taciturn, numinous features in the landscape: I understood more about them and how they had developed, their enormous diversity as well as the way they intersected with other features and historical themes.

It was something of a necessary loss of innocence, I suppose, and Source had followed me in this, until its final appearance in 1998. But in the same way that coming across a really nice well that I’ve never seen before (even through the accounts of someone else) brings a sense of excitement, and re-visiting one of my favourite sites to see what mood it might be in carries a thrill of anticipation – because the well is continually changing – I will always remember with greatest affection the arrival of that first issue of Source, all those years ago.

James Rattue