“Just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.”
So writes John Bunyan in the puritan classic Pilgrim’s Progress, the sepulchre in question is believed to be Stevington’s Holy Well (SP 990 535) in Bedfordshire. Bunyan only lived five miles away and is known to have preached at the nearby cross and meadows near the well.
Bedfordshire itself is a poorly studied area for holy and healing waters, and Stevington’s sacred spring is the best known and more structurally significant in the county, although a similar structure can be seen at Biddenham Bridge. An account at the time of its listing in 1964 records:
“Well structure. Recess in churchyard wall at East end of church. Stone voussoirs in limestone rubble. Recently restored.”
The Holy Well too is in an unusual location situated beneath the Parish church arising from the rocky outcrop. Such a location causes much debate amongst antiquarians. Was the church built upon a holy spring purposely to sanctify it? Was it a pagan site? Or is it coincidental? The church is dedicated to St. Mary
The earliest mention of the well is on the Enclosure Award of 1807 reference is made to Hallwell and Wells Pightle. The later 1883 calls it Holy Well. Neither suggests a dedication but as Harte (2008) in his English Holy Wells suggests it may be an ancient Saxon one. However, Fisher (1812) in the Gentlemen’s magazine records:
“From the rock on which Stevington Church is built issues a spring of clear and most excellent water. This spring is called in old writings, and even to the present time, Holy Well. The principal stream proceeds from the arched recess under the north chancel of the church.”
What these old writings are is unclear, antiquarian Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells records:
“There is a well or spring at Stevington-on-Ouse, seven miles up the valley from Bedford. On the ordnance six-inch map it is engraved “Holy Well,” in Old English lettering, a plan adopted by them for distinguishing ancient buildings or relics from modern institutions. Stevington holy well is arched over, and built into the churchyard wall of St. Mary’s Church, and abuts upon the modern alluvium of the Ouse, which there forms a considerable flat. The church stands on rising ground, formed of alternating beds of limestone and clay, which holds up the water percolating the limestone-hence, probably, the spring. The water was clear, sparkling, and tasteless, although I was prepared to find it a mineral water of some kind. At one time people visited this holy well in considerable numbers, but, like many others, it appears now to have lost its popularity.”
This lack of regard for the spring is suggested by Harvey (1972-8) in his Hundred of Willey who notes:
“It was the customary to wash sheep from Carlton Hill Farm, and from Stagsden, as well as from Stevington, in Holywell”
J. Steele Elliott (1933) work on wells of the county in the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society , so far the only account notes that the Manor house was used for ‘invalids and pilgrims attracted by the well’s virtues’. One of these virtues was to cure eye complaints as well as its waters being renowned in not freezing or drying out. However, Elliott is probably confusing the manor house for the Hospitium the ruins of which were there in the 1600s and may have been built for pilgrims visiting the well but there is no evidence for either being used!
It would seem that this venerable holy well however is having a new lease of life as a site of well dressing. This first begun in 2012 for the Jubilee, using a design being based on Bunyan’s Christian standing by the cross and his burden rolling into the said sepulchre, taken from the Parish church and a naturally fitting design. In 2013 they used the window in Bunyan’s Bedford church showing him imprisoned writing from his illuminated cell. Both considering the ‘immaturity’ of the team was brilliantly done. An account in the St Mary the Virgin Stevington newsletter June 2013 records:
“One of the biggest labours was the Well Dressing. This year Jane O’Connor led a team of volunteers patiently pricking in everything from petals to grasses, from seeds to egg shells to form the representation of the famous picture of Bunyan languishing in his prison cell. An innovation this year was the second collage prepared by the children, somewhat optimistically titled ‘Sunny Stevington.’ In the event the optimism was justified; we had the best two days weather wise of the year so far. We welcomed the Bishop of Bedford for his first visit to Stevington. He rose to the occasion and managed in his sermon to bring together the significance of the Bunyan, the Well and the visit of the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth under the theme of pilgrimage. The choir sang as well as I have heard and the service was completed with a procession for the Bishop to bless the Well followed by refreshments back in church. It was really gratifying not only to see so many in church, but also to note the number of people who appeared just to see the well dressing.
And long may this tradition continue and bring more modern pilgrims to be drawn into the peaceful place which is Stevington’s Holy Well.