Jesmond Dene has seen many faces: private estate, heart of industry and delightful municipal park. Fortunately, it is the later which describes it now: a pleasant sweep of wooded valley, with its great river meandering through it, the haunt of dog walkers, joggers, parents with pushchairs and excited children. However, cast back to long before the 1800s to which much of its present guise steams from, back to the mid medieval period and this area of Jesmond was the scene of great pilgrimage. The goal of these pilgrims was the chapel of St. Mary, once the third biggest pilgrimage site in the Kingdom. To visit it now it’s difficult to understand why, despite an eerie sense of sanctity, its size suggests little importance. But size is not everything it’s what’s inside that counts and inside this chapel was thought to be a very important relic, although exactly what remains a mystery.
A street in Newcastle called Pilgrim Street is said to be connected to the shrine being where pilgrims would gather and be accommodated. A feel of its importance can be gathered by a record of 1479, a Yorkshire rector left money in his will for pilgrims to travel to the Kingdom’s great shrines St Pauls, Canterbury’s Becket shrine and the chapel at Jesmond. The Pope also gave special dispensations I believe in a Papal bull.
A few feet away, up a dirt path, is our main site of pilgrimage, St. Mary’s Well, although the causal passerby would be unaware until they walk up that lane as there is no signage from the street. This is an interesting holy well for a number of reasons. Firstly, that it is one of the few wells ever to be excavated…and secondly that despite a supposed long history and association with a chapel with a known provenance we should not always take everything on face value age wise. When tree root damage threatened the site in the early 1980s it was decided to excavate the site, the work being written up by Fraser (1983) in ‘St Mary’s Well, Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne’ in the 5th series of Archaeologia Aeliana. The research found that the earliest phase was only seventeenth century. A number of other springs were located nearer the chapel and it is thought that one of these was more probably the holy well, although authorities like Brewis (1928) writing in the article ‘St Mary’s Chapel, and the site of St Mary’s Well, Jesmond’ in the 4th series of Archaeologia Aeliana
The earliest description appears to be Wallis (1769) in his The Natural History and Antiquities of Northumberland he describes it as:
“walled round with stone; a saffron-yellow ochre appearing on the sides, and a blue vitrioline sediment at the bottom. It is a plentiful spring. It is made to fall into a stone-bath, a little below it. In the monastic times it was much frequented by pilgrims.”
Richardson The Border book notes
The Holy Well and shrine at this place were anciently in high estimation, and resorted to by pilgrims, who came from all parts of the Kingdom to worship there. It has a reputation as a healing well. The well was enclosed by William Coulson Esq., who purchased possession here in 1669 (as) a bathing place, which was no sooner done than the water left it. This was considered a just revenge for profaning the sacred well; but the water soon returned and the miracle ended
The excavation revealed that the bathing pool was installed as noted in the eighteenth century and the stone was a remodelling from the nineteenth century. Mackenzie (1837) in his Historical, Topographical and Descriptive view of the county of Northumberland states:
“St. Mary’s Well, in this village, which has as many steps down to it as there are articles in the creed..The Holy Well and shrine at this place were anciently in high estimation. Gray says in his chronography “with great confluence and devotion people came from all parts of this island to the shrine of the Virgin Mary” Bourne also observes, it all parts of the island to worship at it
Today, services are still held at the chapel, namely the first Sunday of May, where pilgrims still go to the well and collect its clear and healing waters. Brewis (1928) confusingly notes that:
The well itself is now underground, but the north end of the stone head is still visible.”
Suggesting that sometime in the twentieth century it was restored. More confusingly his account suggests that the spring was a thermal one:
“a Jesmond gentleman, that his grandfather, one winter’s day, took him to see this well
Touching the water, confusingly it does not appear to be warm, but of course that may be different on a cold day. The well is arched over with an inscription stating ‘gratia’ which is said to be part of a longer inscription ‘Ave Maria gratia plena’ although the former is thought to be 18th century in date. Today the spring water is clear and flowing running over is chamber and running down the channel into an overflow albeit covered in leaves. A venerable yew shadows this secret shrine creating a quiet and somewhat eerie nook in a scene of domesticity. It still has many visitors and is kept in very good condition. On an August afternoon it can be a peaceful escape from the modern pressure of Newcastle.