Guest blog post: Herefordshire’s Holy and Healing Wells by Janet Bord
I am very pleased as a bit of festive gift to welcome another post from Janet Bord one of the great contributors to the field….Merry Christmas, happy Yuletide and Happy 2019
100 years ago many homes in Britain did not have a mains water supply, with water having to be fetched from nearby wells and springs. Domestic wells were a fact of life for many even in the mid 20th century, whereas today we turn on taps in the comfort of our homes without a second thought. The intricacies of water supply in Herefordshire on the Welsh border in earlier times are shown in a detailed survey by Linsdall Richardson which was published in 1935: Wells and Springs of Herefordshire (HMSO, London, 1935). In addition to the most well-known holy wells of the county, he also describes many more named wells, some holy, many used for healing purposes. I have no idea how many of them can still be identified, but they are worth recording, and so here is a run-through of the most interesting examples, with quotations from Richardson’s book. Remember that references to the present-day within the quotes will mean the early 1930s! I have given map references for those wells I have visited. Many of them are also described in Jonathan Sant’s useful 1994 book The Healing Wells of Herefordshire, sadly no longer easily available.
Cae Thomas (or St Thomas’s) Well, Llanveynoe (p.40)
‘This very attractive and copious spring issues from the rock in a steep bank two-fifths of a mile up stream from Ford and courses down the bank into the Olchon Brook…. [It] has long had a local reputation for its medicinal properties…’ At the time of writing in 1935, the owner planned to market the water as Glen Olchon Water, but he died and so the plan was thankfully never carried out. The commercialisation of this spring doesn’t bear thinking about, and luckily it remains unspoilt, tucked away in the remote borderland, needing persistence to discover but well worth the effort.
St Clodock’s or St Clydog’s Well, Clodock (p.41) SO326273
‘… a dip-well fed by a spring from rock close to the R. Monnow. In times of flood the Monnow invades the well.’ The spring can still be located on the river bank under a low stone slab among the grass. Clodock was a 6th-century Border king who was murdered and whose body was taken away by ox-cart until it broke, so he was buried at that spot, and a church was built there. His well is only a few minutes walk away along the riverside footpath.
St Peter’s Wells, Peterchurch (p.43) SO353388
There were three springs originally, the two highest being good for eye troubles; pins were thrown into them. ‘The water of the larger [lower] well flowed through a sculptured head of St Peter into a shallow bathing place made for the use of sufferers of rheumatism.’ The well has been restored so that the water still flows, or did in 2009 when I saw it, through the stone head. The site of the pool below is now overgrown.
St Mary’s Well, Peterchurch (p.43)
‘A small spring called St. Mary’s Well, but known locally as Sore Eyes’ Well, issues from rock in the steep side of the dingle in Park Wood… A small basin-like hollow appears to have been made in the rock and the spring is still resorted to by many in search of relief for eye afflictions.’
St Margaret’s Well, St Margarets (p.44)
‘This spring is on Green Court Farm, three-tenths of a mile south of Urishay. The spring issues from beneath a prominent rock band and discharges direct into the stream… The only information that could be obtained locally was that it was believed that there used to be a bathing pool here.’
Heavenly Well, Vowchurch (p.45)
‘This is a dip-well fed by a small spring from cornstone close to the track’ one mile from Vowchurch church. No information is given as to the well’s use, but its name alone meant I had to include it in this listing.
Golden Well, Dorstone (p.49)
‘This is a shallow-seated spring issuing from loamy soil just within the western boundary of Bell Alders, half a mile north-west-by-west of St. Mary’s church, Dorstone. According to the legend: “In this well, once upon a time, a fisherman caught a fish with a gold chain round its neck. In commemoration a sculptured representation of the fish in stone, with its chain, was placed in the church [at Peterchurch], where it may still be seen.”’ [Quotation from The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather, p.12]
St Peter’s Well, Whitney (p.50)
‘This is a “spout spring” issuing from the steep bank between the railway and the road north-east of SS. Peter and Paul Church.’
St Ann’s Well, Aconbury (p.51)
‘For a long time it was the local belief that water taken from this spring after twelve o’clock on Twelfth Night possessed great curative properties and was especially good for eye troubles.’
St Edith’s Well, Stoke Edith (p.59) SO604406
‘This is a copious spring, probably an overflow spring from the Downton Castle Sandstone, emerging near the church and below the churchyard and by which the memorial trough on the Hereford—Ledbury road was supplied. The well is called after St Edith, daughter of King Edgar, who at the age of fifteen was made Abbess of Wilton. She died in her twenty-third year, on September 16th, 984. According to a legend the spring issued in answer to her prayer for water which was needed for mixing the mortar required for a church. For many years the villagers believed that those who bathed in its water were cured of various ailments, and to stop the bathing, bars were at length placed in front of the well.’ That sounds like a most vindictive, unsympathetic course of action to take, at a time when the villagers would have had little or no access to medical care.
Holy Well, Luston (p.84)
‘At the northern end of Luston village, at the turning to Eye, is a Holy Well the water of which is now collected in a concrete tank from which it emerges through a pipe.’
Holy Well, Adforton (p.87)
‘This spring, which is on government property and said to have “a pretty constant make,” emerges in Wenlock Shale ground at a point 960 yds. from Adforton Church in a south-westerly direction. There are said to be seven springs which locally are reputed to have medicinal properties.’
Laugh Lady Well, Brampton Bryan (p.89)
‘A cairn has been erected over this spring the yield of which is now small since the bulk is taken for the Park and village supply. The legend attached to this well is that if a pin be dropped in and bubbles arise from it, the wish then made will be granted.’
Cawdor Well, Ross Rural (p.99)
‘This well, on the northern boundary of the Ross Urban District, was fed by five weak springs from sandstone, but has now been filled up with earth. For long its water was held in high esteem for curing rheumatism, etc.’
Holy Well, Garway (p.105) SO455224
‘In the churchyard of St. Michael’s Church is a Holy Well. The water comes through a spout in the churchyard wall, but it is the overflow of a stone tank (in a hollow at the back) into which a spring from sandstone runs…. The occurrence of this spring caused the Knights Templars to select the site for one of their preceptories.’
Holy Well, Holywell, Blakemere (p.108)
‘At Holywell, the Holy Well is a perennial spring of good water, issuing from a gravel bed in a field at the back of the school, from which all the people in the hamlet fetch their supplies.’
The Dragon’s Well, Brinsop (p.109)
‘”The church…is dedicated to St. George…The Dragon’s Well is in Duck Pool meadow, on the south side of the church, while on the other side is a field called ‘Lower Stanks’…where St. George slew the Dragon.”’ [quoted from Mrs Leather’s Folk-Lore of Herefordshire, p.11]
Eye Well, Mansell Gamage (p.110)
‘There is an Eye Well in Eye Well Field on the top of the hill.’
Eye Well, Bromyard (pp.114-15)
‘This spring (about half a mile south-west-by-south of Bromyard Church) is on land…by the side of the Hereford road…The water had for long the reputation of being “good for the eyes” and was used for bathing them up to about twenty years ago [i.e. c. 1915]. “Eye Well” has now become erroneously “High-well” and a house built near by bears this name.’
Crooked Well, Kington (p.115)
‘This spring – the source of the town’s supply – according to tradition was “good for the eyes.” By some it is said to be so called because a crooked pin was necessary as an offering; but Mr. G. Marshall suggests that the name comes from the old word “crooked” (crokyd), which was equivalent to lame or crippled.’
St Ethelbert’s Well, Castle Hill, Hereford (p.127) SO511396
‘According to tradition a spring “is said to have sprung up on the spot where St. Ethelbert’s body touched the ground on its removal from Marden [to Hereford Cathedral] in 793. A mutilated sculptured head of St. Ethelbert, part of an effigy which formerly stood at the west end of the Cathedral, is fixed above the well. A circular stone within the garden of Mr. Custos Eckett’s house marks the exact position of the spring.” “Some years ago, when the well was cleaned out, a quantity of pins were found in it. The water was held especially good for ulcers and sores.”’ [First quotation from Trans. Woolhope Nat. F.C. for 1918; second quote from Mrs Leather’s Folk-Lore of Herefordshire, pp.11,12]
Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Fynnon Sara, Derwen
Possibly one of the easiest of North Wales’s holy wells located a few feet from the roadside down a cobbled path, all part of the local vicar’s attempt to landscape and preserve the site in the 1970s. A plaque on the wall tells us it is Ffynnon Sara. The well itself consists of a large stone lined bath like structure, 4.5 by 2.3 metres and fills to around a metre depth although when I visited it appeared only a few centimetres in depth, the water being reached by four steps in one corner.
The well was once firmly on the pilgrim’s trail from Holywell to St Davids being marked on maps until the 17th century. A cottage was located nearby and may have been used by visitors. Peering into the duckweed covered sluggish water it is difficult to see how these waters had thought to have a wide range of powers. Amongst the usual claims of eczema and rheumatism, cancer was said to be cured here. Patients would bathe in the well and leave pins! Presumably those who bathed afterwards would be aware of this. Crutches were said to have been left in the cottage which existed on the site, said to have been lost in the 1860s. Now a sign proclaims unfit to drink!
Who’s well is it?
There has been some confusion over the origin of the name. Whilst the name could easily derive from the owner of the nearby lost cottage, possibly a family name, others have sought to associated with a saint. St Saeran, a sixth century saint has been suggested. He established a monastic settlement at Llanynys, eight or so miles from the site. However, there is no reason why they should be the original dedication. Indeed in the 17th century it was called Fynnon Pyllau Perl – pearl ponds – perhaps after pearl producing mussels in the water.
Upon visiting the well I was greeted with a delightful encounter. Peering into those murky waters was a lady who unbeknownst to her got me interested into holy wells in the first place. It was author Janet Bord. With her was fellow enthusiast, Tristan Grey Hulse (founder of the Source new series, author and St Winifred Wells companion) and a number of others. They had simply stopped there to have a quick look and were actually only visiting churches. I suppose after visiting so many wells it was bound to happen but it was a fitting finish to my North Wales Holy well pilgrimage.