The Old Wife’s Well has been on my to visit list for quite a time. The well is not the easiest to find situated on afforested woodland on the edge of moorland. High above Pickering, but only a few miles, it seems to be 100s of years away. A snapshot of an older tradition. The spring arises in a rather simple square well chamber which is fairly non-descript bar the engraving on the top which is most interesting. The carving reads:
This has been translated as ‘Well of the spirits’; Fonten – meaning spring and Nattie meaning spirit. Is this the Old Wife one wonders? Old Wife is found in a number of sites across Yorkshire: Old Wife’s Hill at Cundall, Old Wife’s Howe at Ravenscar, Old Wife’s Stones at Danby and Old Wife’s Neck which are standing stones on John Cross Rigg. Locally there is Wade’s causeway a long pavemented road which travels romantically across the desolate moorland. Wade was a local giant who is said to have built the causeway, which has been in the past said to be a Roman road, although opinion has changed over time. However, the wife in question is probably not a wife in the modern meaning but from the middle English word Wif which simply means ‘women’ which of course has survived in the term ‘midwife’ Thus the Old Wife simply means Old Women. Now this could refer to an old women who lived by the well, perhaps a local seer. Yet there is another explanation it could well remember the Cailleach, the old woman or hag, a deity of the Celtic population. Dr Anne Ross in her 1960 Pagan Celtic Britain described her as:
“At once mother, warrior, hag, virgin, conveyor of fertility, of strong sexual appetite which led to her seeking mates amongst mankind equally with the gods, giver of prosperity to the land, protectoress of the flocks and herds.”
Certainly the Old Wife’s Well is situated in an ancient landscape being close to a Mesolithic flint mine which was still active in the Bronze age and it is likely that the population used the spring. Of course one most sometimes be wary of wells with inscriptions suggesting ancient gods which may suggest classically aware landowners.
This notwithstanding, the site is powerfully evocative laying in an opening in the afforested woodland surrounded by low laying mist. It certainly is a much visited site by local people who connect with it spiritually and has within the last 30 years become a rag well.
The most common are traditional ribbons some of which are of cotton and should rot. They are attached to the trees and to the wooden enclosure of the well.
Some of the rags are clearly decaying and covered with algae and moss, suggesting they have been there for sometime.
There are also dream catchers
An evocative site hopefully it will not get too over-adorned with rags and objects and retains its mystery!
Many years ago a friend of mine claimed his mother had discovered the location of the Muswell and she had become a bit of an expert on it. I remember her claiming that it was in a cupboard which at the time I thought was odd although I did not challenge her and forgot about it until now. In truth there still appears to be some confusion over the titular well of this well-known, London area- Muswell The name of this well has been confused, the most obvious is the secular Mossy well, which has been interpreted as Moses Well or St. Mary’s Well. Harte in his 2008 English holy wells suggests that the site is synonymous with St. Mary’s Well at Willesden. However, John Norden’s Speculum Britanniae of 1593. He wrote:
‘at Muswell Hill, called also Pinnersnall Hill, there was a chapel sometime bearing the name of Our Lady of Muswell where now Alderman Rowe hath erected a proper house. The place taketh the name of the well and the hill, Muswell Hill, for there is on the hill a spring of fair water which is within the compass of the house. There was sometime an image of the Lady of Muswell, whereunto was a continual resort in the way of pilgrimage, growing as is fabulously reported in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water upon a certain King of Scots who being strangely diseased was by some divine intelligence advised to take the water of the well in England called Muswell, which after long scrutation and inquisition, this well was found and performed the cure…’
John Aubrey in his Miscellanies, 1696, states that:
‘the water of this well is drunk for some distemper still’.
Indeed it is probable that two wells are under discussion. Stanley Foord’s 1910 Springs, Streams and Spas of London records that:
“in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water, upon a king of Scots, who being strangely diseased, was by some devine intelligence, advised to take the water of a Well in England, called Muswell, which after long scrutation, and inquisition, this Well was found and performed the cure”.
The king believed to Robert the Bruce (the Bruces held land nearby) but Malcolm has also been mentioned, and the illness was thought to be leprosy. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells calls it St Lazarus’ Well, although he is the only source. The author adds that it was ‘situated behind the Alexandra Palace’. Today a private house (no 10 Muswell road) stands on the ‘presumed’ site halfway along the road. Indeed, Muswell road is located just west of Alexandra Park and the famous Alexandra Palace. However there
is also a neglected well in front of a house in Muswell Avenue which has been identified by
one website Earth Stars. Alternatively, another website, https://www.londonslostrivers.com/muswell-stream.html, states emphatically:
“The present day Muswell Road, N10 is the location of the “Mossy Well” where the well still exists but is capped beneath a private house.”
The Hornsey Historical society, https://hornseyhistorical.org.uk/pins-or-muswell-hill/ state:
“The well survived until 1898 and a plaque on No. 40 Muswell Road marks the spot.”
To put a plaque up suggests pretty much certainty and indeed the site does correspond to marks on the first series OS.
The confusion is probably explained as Curls in his 2010 Spas, Wells and pleasure gardens of London notes that there were two holy wells in the area see Tottenham. These were described as being in good preservation at the end of the nineteenth century according to T. K. Cromwell (1823) History and description of the Parish of Clerkenwell. One well was described as producing hard, pellucid and hard water, the other was like rainwater. It is stated that in the mid-1800s, contrary to Cromwell, the landowners of one had sealed one well, prompting a civil action to preserve access for local people. The local people won in the case of 1862 and the Alexander Park Company had to provide a pump. Yet by 1880s the pump had begun to cease to function and the wells were only supplied by surface waters which was polluted. Around this time it was lost, this would appear to be the same site as St Dunstan’s Well. In 2016 workers digging Muswell Hill Broadway revealed a circular 30m deep well, which English Heritage are planning to investigate. Its location is unlikely to be the titular site but it is not impossible
The Minster Wells: An Archaeological Evaluation of the Holy Wells of Minster Abbey, Isle of Sheppey, Kent – Brian Slade.
- The Abbess’s Well
The Abbess’s Well at Minster Abbey is so named because it supplied the water for St Sexburga’s palace. It is a timeless and sacred place, full of legend, symbolism and atmosphere. In 1991, I directed the award-winning excavations undertaken by the Sheppey Archaeological Society, of two wells associated with the former abbey. The Abbess’s Well produced proof positive of habitation on the site dating back to the very dawn of Britain’s history. The evidence includes pottery from the late Bronze Age (c. 1400-1000 B.C.) and Iron Age, to the Norman periods; with, in between, no less than ten varieties of Roman ware. Most remarkable of all, we uncovered more Anglo-Saxon imported Ipswich Ware (A.D. 650-850) than has been discovered in all the excavations at Kent’s cathedral city of Canterbury put together. Metal finds include seven Anglo-Saxon bronze dress pins, some with decorated heads, perhaps once worn by Sexburga’s nuns; and a delicate chain or chatelaine to which is attached a small pair of shears, equivalent in size to modern-day nail-scissors, which might have hung from some nun’s girdle. A cressett lamp-base (cressett, from the French, croix, a cross) from the 650 to 850 period was found, as were a silver sceatta coin, of a type issued for Egbert, archbishop of York, in currency between 732-4 and 766, and four Henry Ill silver coins (1216-1272).
Some of the most exciting finds were of glass. These include the broken remains of 7th-9th century natural green-blue Anglo-Saxon glass intentionally streaked with opaque red. Smooth free-blown glass and re-inflated high-relief ribbed glass blown in a mould is represented. Spanning the period from c. 500 A.D. to the 800s, some of the glass is from domestic jars and squat-jars. However, in the context of their being anciently broken around the holy well of St Sexburga’s convent, the most personal, poignant and mentally stimulating objects are the remains of glass beakers, pouch bottles, and dull natural green-blue ribbed palm cups. As the name implies, ‘palm cups’ do not have handles (nor, for the most part, do Anglo-Saxon beakers), their shape and size enabling them to be easily and comfortably cupped in the drinker’s palm. We may picture to ourselves Anglo-Saxon nuns, beakers and palm cups in their hands, sitting and standing around their abbess’s well on hot summer’s days, quietly sipping water freshly drawn from the well’s deliciously cool depths. Other nuns would be coming and going, filling glass pouch bottles either to keep about their person to drink from later as required, or to take to other nuns whose duties or state of health prevented them from coming to draw water for themselves. Inevitably, over the centuries every now and then one of the nuns would accidentally drop her beloved (and probably inherited) green-blue decoratively-ribbed glass palm cup, beaker or pouch bottle onto the ground around the well, where the delicate glass would break into many pieces which would gradually be trodden into the soft ground. And there they remained buried, hidden from sight for more than 1,000 years, until the Sheppey Archaeological Society came into being, dug them up, and had them examined, identified and dated by an expert at a museum.
The sheer density and richness of Anglo-Saxon finds unearthed in such a very small area around the Abbess’s Well reflect the wealth of royalty. The nunnery was founded more than 1,300 years ago by the widowed Anglo-Saxon queen Sexburga, to house her nuns of royal and high birth. An abrupt reduction in the pottery finds around the well from between c. 850 and 1,100 A.D. bears terrible witness to a period of diminished habitation, following documented Viking raids made on the Monasterium Sexburga, latter called Minster Abbey.
As an archaeologist and local historian well acquainted with Minster Abbey’s documented history, I had expected the Anglo-Saxon pottery evidence around the well to begin c. 660 A.D., when St Sexburga’s nunnery was founded. Instead, the team also unearthed Anglo-Saxon pottery from about 450 A.D., predating Monasterium Sexburga by some 200 years. This suggests that Sexburga introduced her nunnery into an existing and presumably pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon settlement. This provided the first evidence of such a scenario yet discovered. An English Heritage report based on their own inspection of the Abbess’s Well concluded that the stones forming the well- shaft are consistent with a 12th-century date. Yet, objects found down inside the Well date back to
3rd-century Roman occupation of the site. As there is no indigenous stone on the Isle of Sheppey, this suggests that c. 1130, when Archbishop William de Corbeuil shipped stone to Minster, he had the original wicker and timber-lined well-shaft replaced by the stone still to be seen in place there today.
The Abbess’s Well was found to contain a 400-year-old size-five woman’s shoe. Attached to the wooden sole was a raised iron ring designed to keep the shoe above the surface of unpaved streets, and thus raise the lady’s dress out of the mud. This type of footwear is called a pattern. Although iron rings from such shoes are often discovered, a complete shoe is a rarity. It is believed to have survived protected by the silt, preserved by being constantly waterlogged since it was deposited in the well.
With a powerful pump keeping the water at bay, at the very bottom of the 31 ‘-deep well two Roman coins were discovered; an Antoninianus of Victorianus (269-271 A.D.), and an Antoninianus of Gallienus (253-268 A.D.). This last bears an image of a stag on the reverse, possibly a symbol of the goddess Diana. (Diana is sometimes termed the goddess of sacred springs and wells, and it is interesting that Daly’s History of the Isle of Sheppey records a tradition that a temple at Minster was dedicated to Diana, which may have stood where
Minster Abbey was later built. In the second part of this article I will give details of the team’s investigation of what I have come to call ‘the Well of the Triple Goddess’ here at Minster, and of a three-headed female image discovered therein. It is interesting that the Romans called the goddess Diana Triformis -triformis meaning, having three forms – in other words, Diana was in some sense a ‘triple goddess’. ) From the archaeological evidence discovered around and within the Abbess’s Well, it seems possible that Sexburga inherited and blessed a pre-Christian well in the name of Christ, and adopted it as her own. (The Bible tells us that one of the marks of Divine favour towards the Chosen People was that ‘they should come into possession of wells which they had not digged’ – Deuteronomy VI, 11.)
Sexburga was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, and the sister of the more famous St Etheldreda. She was married to King Erconbert of Kent, and founded the royal convent of Minster. Upon Erconbert’s death in 664, she became abbess at Minster. Around 673 she moved to Ely, where she succeeded Etheldreda as abbess after the latter’s death in 679. Sexburga herself died c. 700, and was buried beside her sister at Ely. Her daughter St Ermengild, widow of King Wulfhere of Mercia, followed Sexburga first as abbess of Minster, and afterwards becoming the third royal abbess of Ely.(2)
According to Elizabeth Mills (the granddaughter of the Rev. William Branston, vicar of Minster, 1878-1901):
St. Sexburga, and her holy sisters, are traditionally said to have had a vast knowledge of healing waters, herbs and medicines, and that they used the waters from certain magical springs and wells for drinking and bathing the wounds of injured people, and sometimes even animals, thus effecting many outstanding cures among the sick and injured. (3)
In common with many other saints it is said that St Sexburga personally blessed all the wells she used. (4) Situated high on a hill overlooking the sea, the source of the water in Sexburga’s well is unknown, but it is thought to be fed by a spring deep beneath the Abbey grounds. Its supply has never been known to fail, even in the severest drought. In 1536 Henry VIll dissolved Minster Abbey, and over the following centuries the wells that once supplied the proud abbey with water were filled in. But such was its location (and possibly, too, the reverence and awe in which the people and Church held this particular water source) that it has remained a working well right up until the present day.
Even if one was totally to discount the recently discovered archaeological evidence that the Abbess’s Well existed during and before St Sexburga’s time, the 12th-century stone-lined well-shaft still implies that, at the time of writing, it has survived as a working well for over 850 years. Long after the Dissolution, the Abbess’s Well continued in the ownership of the church, the land being rented out for farming and market gardening. An ancient map shows the well amidst trees. The team discovered great numbers of plum stones in the Abbess’s Well, identified by Kew Gardens as ‘Prunus domestica, of the Rosaceae family’; indicating that the well once stood in a plum orchard. Sections of ancient brickwork (one with a piece of timber beam still mortared into it) were found in the well, together with broken peg-tiles, suggesting that at one time the well had a brick-built well-house over it. One might suggest that the plum-stones and other rubbish had fallen into the well after the well-house had collapsed or had been demolished, or perhaps even before the well-house was built. This is borne out by the fact that only worthless rubbish was found in the top few inches of the mud at the bottom of the well, after which (and apart from the pattern) the mud and silt was free of artefacts down to the level at which the medieval pins were discovered. Even deeper were the Roman coins, right at the very bottom of the well. Unlike so many of even the best-known holy wells in the British Isles, which for the most part are void of any contextual evidence of habitation and use in antiquity, the archaeological evidence unearthed within and around the Abbess’s Well is overwhelming. It is now arguably the best-authenticated monastic holy well on record in Great Britain, archaeologically speaking.
The first person to disturb the water of the Abbess’s Well was Ian White, of Sheerness. Indeed, because he was the only member of the archaeological team thin enough to squeeze his body through the bottleneck opening into the well, all the work down inside the well was carried out by Ian. Perhaps as a result,
in 1993 England’s news-media network – radio, television, newspapers, magazines – reported:
Sharon, wife of archaeologist Ian White, had suffered four miscarriages. Specialists told her they didn’t know what the problem was. Sharon began to lose faith and wondered if she would ever be able to have a baby. But almost exactly nine months after her husband finished working hours on end immersed up to his waist in water down a reputed healing well at Minster Abbey, Sharon gave birth to a beautiful healthy baby girl, Emily.
That was in 1991, and now the happy couple also have Hanna. (5) The land on which the Abbess’s Well is sited was sold to a builder in the 1930s, and the well was incorporated into the garden of a house called Abbot’s Gate, in Falcon Gardens.
Abbot’s Gate was purchased in 1994 by Leon and Brenda Stanford, who are perfect heritage-minded custodians, always ready and happy to show the well to people and to discuss its history (by appointment only). If any reader is genuinely interested in paying them a visit, please telephone them first, on xxxxx, mentioning my name and that of Source. A small timber shed has been built over the well, to provide protection and easy access to the well, which stands exactly as it has for centuries: clean, functional, and delivering crystal-clear fresh water, water given by the earth and blessed by history.
- Augustus A. Daly, The History of the Isle of Sheppey, Simkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. (London) 1904, p. 18.
- David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press 1992, pp. 161, 433-4.
- Elizabeth Mills, ‘The Forgotten Saint’. St. Wendreda of Erning, Newmarket. No details given. (This is a leaflet given away with plates depicting St Wendreda, sold at Newmarket.)
- This is still-current local tradition in Minster,
- Sheppey Gazette, 6 Oct. 1993, p. 1; cf. also, e.g., Jane Simon, ‘Fertility goddess gave me babies! Woman’s Own, Christmas edition 1993, pp. 52-3. Please note: Ian White worked down both the Abbess’ Well and the well of the goddess’ – one following the other – so that the ‘miracle baby’ story could be attributed to both or either. Naturally, the media preferred the ‘fertility goddess’ story. Christians will associate the ‘miracle’ with the Abbess’ Well; pagans (especially pagan feminist groups) with the ‘triple goddess’. (Unlike more purely archives-based research articles, in the context of this archaeologically-based article the primary sources are my own publications. If you wish to know more about the two holy wells of Minster Abbey, and the team’s other excavations there, full details, illustrations, photographs, etc., are contained in the following booklets:
The Abbess’s Well,
The Well of the Triple Goddess;
The Well of the Triple Goddess: What the Experts Say;
The Minster Miracles;
Minster Abbey: An Account of the Excavations.
The first three booklets were reviewed in Source 3: they are f2 each inclusive of p. & p. , obtainable from Brian Slade. If you mention Source and my article when ordering, and enclose a separate letter suggesting that the ‘Well of the Triple Goddess’ should be re-opened as a tourist attraction, as recommended by Dr Richard Morrice of English Heritage, Swale Borough Council, and our Archaeological Society, all five booklets will cost only E6, including p. & p.. Please make cheques and postal orders out to Brian Slade. The booklets are sold on a non-profit-making basis, to defray costs of research and production. It is my fond hope that readers of Source will send me further relevant information to assist my research regarding the Minster Abbey wells; and I take this opportunity to extend an invitation to readers to visit me if ever they are in this area. I can be contacted on xxxxx, evenings only, between 7 and 8.)
Note Brian sadly passed away I believe in the early 00s and the folding of the new series of Source meant that the other wells were not featured.
When I researched holy wells for holy wells and healing springs of Kent, I visited Sheerness in search of more information and contacted Mr and Mrs Stanford to visit the Abbey Well and they were more than happy to arrange a time for me to visit. I was taken to their garden where there was to what appeared, a simple wooden pine ‘shed’, within which the well was found. The well had been fitted with security lid and lights has been placed over and down the well shaft, by Mr Stanford.
This shed was becoming a sort of mini-museum with artefacts from the well. He informed me that after consultation with NRA and Southern water, the water had been analysed and was shown to contain essential minerals: manganese, phosphorus, silicon, zinc, copper and calcium, and was one of the purest in the county.
I was informed of a catalogue of cures which had been documented, which included Mr Stanford himself. He informed me that when he took over the property he walked with a stick, and was to undergo surgery, but after taking the water for a couple of weeks, he now walks unaided and never needing the operation. He also said that it was good for eye complaints and one such individual is a Mary Smith, whose serious eye infection made her a virtual recluse. Yet, despite using eye
lotions for two years with no effect, the complaint was cured the day after.
He stated that hundreds have come drink the water, some with fertility issues or, wanting to cure serious illnesses such as including cancer and blindness. Often he said they filled 25-litre water to take away with them some even going to mainland Europe with it. Of course he does not charge for the water. However, orders come for water throughout the world it would appear, from Africa to the US to Australia to send water too.
A second well was also excavated by Mr. Slade and his team and lies outside the old Abbey
Gatehouse, sadly still not still not marked and under concrete, called the Gatehouse Well or Well of the Triple Headed Goddess. The well was a public well and a number of similar discoveries
to those of St. Sexburga’s well, have been found in relation to this well, however overshadowing these is the controversial ‘Venus de Minster’ also called a triple headed goddess.
Interestingly, Slade suggests that Minster Abbey replaced a temple dedicated to Apollo and Diana and the image may be of her or equally of course St. Sexburga and her sisters and functioned as ancient pilgrim souvenir or a votive object. The image was associated with a strange ‘miracle’ concerning one the excavators, Mr. Ian White, being the only team member able to squeeze into the well he had direct contact with its water, and it was claimed that his wife became surprisingly pregnant, after four miscarriages and being told that she was unable to have children. When When a Dr Ian Godsland, a medical research scientist at Imperial College, heard about the Whites’ baby, he decided to send £150 towards the excavation of the well. He told the Daily Express:
“I really believe that the goddess may have played a part. Don’t ask me how it happened or for any explanations. I just believe now that the world can work in a different way to the one we scientists think we understand.”
Ian White told the Daily Express:
“Of course I can’t say it was the goddess for certain. No one can. But we both like to believe it.”
I never saw the Triple Goddess figure, as I never in the end went to see Brian and I have no idea where it is now. He had told me that there were at least three other cases similar to Mrs White’s one.
As Mr. White went down both wells the ‘miracle’ could be attributed to either site, but the media liked to connect it to this well. A modern ritual developed involving the touching a copy of the goddess image for luck, and then going to the Abbess’s well to drink its water.
Are either really holy wells?
What makes a holy well? Certainly there is a lot here to process – association with abbey ruins, highly mineralised water, cures and effigies but in a way no mention of this site itself as a holy well either by tradition of pilgrimage to it or association directly with saint historically recorded. What in way we have is a modern holy well based on an ancient mediaeval well. A well with some pedigree but none the less an abbey well or in the case of the other site a domestic well with no recorded sanctifying of the site. Brian Slade’s books are very interesting reads and he writes a lot which suggests that Sheerness was a very interesting place but its nearly all conjecture without any real evidence. But does it really matter?
The Abbey Well and Well of the Triple Goddess appear to have fallen again into obscurity and one cannot be sure whether people still come for the water. The later, really the gatehouse well still from what I can gather remains sealed! The site is marked on google maps as a tourist attraction but so little is on the internet about it, that I am sure modern miracle seekers are very puzzled by this marker which just appears to be in a non-descript street!
De Jafre you are the crown, the joy and the consolation; your love caresses, the region as one; our faith kneels, with your grace and virtue.
The Joys to Our Lady of the Fountains of Jafre by Mn. Francesc Viver and with music by Salvador Dabau. 1945.
Many visit Catalonia in Spain and visit Barcelona, Girona and of course the wonderful coastland, but for those interested in healing, holy and in this case water used for ritual purposes will find Catalonia a very rewarding location. Sites range from thermal springs to ritual mikveh and in at least one holy well. To find this holy well, a journey inland is necessary to locate the Santuari de la Font Santa with its fountain ‘dels Horts de Mari’.
Why a holy well here?
Why in this fairly remote location should there be a shrine to Our Lady you may ask. Well unsurprisingly this was due to an apparition of the Virgin seen by a local person. This was a local farmer, Miquel Castelló, who in November 1460, received a warning that the water of the spring would become miraculous. Interestingly, Miquel Castelló written statement and a document collating the witness testimony of a number of people which was commissioned by the Bishop of Girona are preserved. The following account gives fuller details of it:
“on a Friday in the year 1460, when Miquel del mas Castelló was plowing his field in Bosc Gran, a young stranger appeared to him and told him that the water from the spring had healing properties. Faced with the farmer’s disbelief, who did not believe his words, the young man prophesied that a child would die in Jafre that very day. Miquel Castelló hadn’t finished plowing when he heard knocking. When he returned home he learned that Bernat Dolza’s son had just died. Terrified, he told the rector what had happened to him and he immediately exhorted the parishioners to have faith in the waters of that source.”
Very soon after this news spread and people begun to visit to spring from all over the country. Its waters were said to be good for eye disorders, especially it is said for blind people. However, it was also good for paralysis, fevers, sore throat and rheumatism. Such was the popularity of the site that on the 25th June 1461 there was a general assembly of the local households and councillors which was presided over in the parish church by the vicar general of the diocese. At the meeting it was decided that a chapel, decided to Our Lady, would be built by the spring and make pools and eye washing places although they appear to have been now lost. The spring was formally then adopted as a holy well. The waters could be spiteful though and it is said if sinful people washed there the water would stop!
The sanctuary complex and springhead.
This 15th century complex consists of unified building made of rough stone and angular ashlars with a central chapel with outbuildings with the different rooms and a large atrium to which a lowered arcade gives access. The chapel has a single nave with a barrel vaulted roof however the cambril is modern having been destroyed in the 1930s Civil War.
The font itself flows from a small barrel vaulted arched structure with the water flowing from a metal pipe into a natural basin of rock covered with moss. One accesses the spring by a small set of stone steps down to the water. On ledges flowers and small offerings were placed indicating still an active shrine. The whole structure is made of undressed stone and pieces of pottery. Above the spring in a niche is a figure of the Virgin Mary.
This figure replaced one lost during the Civil War and is made of plaster with. She has the child Jesus on her knees and holds in her right hand a representation of the spring head and the child carries in his right hand the ball of the world. This figure was blessed on November 11, 1939, after the cult’s restoration on the 8th of September.
A place of pilgrimage
When I visited it was quiet and desolate feeling, the chapel was locked but access was easily found to the spring. However, at key dates in the Catholic and local calendar the sanctuary is busy with processions and people taking the water. The year starts with a local mass of thanks giving for the water’s role in the local town’s cholera epidemic in 1884, on or around the January 20th. Understandably the main days of procession and pilgrimage are those associated with significant feast days of our Lady such as March 25th, Feast of the Virgin Mary of Gràcia when the water from the fountain is blessed. On the May 1 or first Sunday in May there is also a blessing of the fields and of course the whole month of May being Mary’s month it is generally a popular day of devotion. The Assumption of Mary in or around the 15th August and perhaps the most significant the 8th of September, the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary with the 8th of December being recognised for the feast of The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Another notable day is Corpus Christi when a flower carpet is laid within the chapel’s aisle. Today the site is really only of local importance its countrywide fame disappearing over the years, but it remains and important holy well in Catalonia and one well worth visiting.
The 12th century church of St Lawrence, Gumfreston (Pembrokeshire/Dyfed) lies off the road to Tenby to Sageston. In its churchyard three springs rise to form a stream that flows out through a ‘bridge’ in the churchyard wall. Although well-known and historically recorded in the past, Gumfreston Wells had become a local ‘secret’ that was in danger of being forgotten as the generations moved on.
It was in 1992 that my husband Trevor and I walked down the quiet lane to find the ancient church nestling in the woods and fields around it. It seemed an odd place to build a church, halfway down a hill, with no nearby houses. We knew nothing then, of course, about the history of Gumfreston. Walking through the churchyard gate was like walking into another time, into an almost awesome sense of peace, and for us, welcome. I really surprised myself by thinking ‘This is a place of healing’.
Sometimes people or places reach out to us, and so our journey with Gumfreston began. We had come from London to live in West Wales after Trevor had been made redundant a year before. Sp we had to,e tp bosoy the church and explore the churchyards. We found the wells, very overgrown with plant life, the stream choked with leaves and debris. Then for the first time we met someone once connected with the church, the then warden, Ken Handicott, who with a tiny but devoted congregation was struggling to keep the church going. It was Ken who first told us about the healing qualities of the wells, upon which he felt he had drawn personally. Sixteen years before, he had suffered a stroke and been partially paralysed on one side. With immense determination and often daily visits to the well, into which he dipped his paralysed arm, he regained his mobility, and went on to serve as a lay-reader and warden to Gumfreston. By this time the workload was heavy for him, and although we live in Manorbier over 5 miles away, we knew this was to be our church, and that we had the time and energy to give to this place we loved too.
That summer we were wading happily through the stream clearing the surplus greenery and nettles, discovering the beautiful stone structures of two of the wells in which the springs were rising, and the water trickled from another well was buried under natural debris. We began researching the history of the Gumfreston wells and discovered that they were listed in Holy Wells of Wales by Francis Jones (Cardiff 1954 p211) as pilgrimage healing wells. What had begun as a play’ was becoming more serious now. Trevor became warden (mainly because nobody else wanted the job!) and we began looking up references to Gumfreston in every local library, and talking to local people, especially the elderly. Tenby Museum had old prints that showed Gumfreston had been a quay on the River Ritec which had carried boats from Tenby to St Florence before the river estuary became silted up and the railway embankment was built.
In our small congregation we found a real sense of fellowship and purpose to maintain Gumfreston church and wells as a place of worship and a continuing ‘sanctuary’ for modern-day ‘pilgrims’/ Over the last couple of years we have become aware of the large numbers of visitors passing through Gumfreston many who return year after year, and are using the well water. We believe there have always been pilgrims coming here, and have begun to work for them. The church lost its keys years ago and is always open, so we invite people to come in and enjoy the peace of Gumfreston. We leave books in which visitors can write their thoughts and if they wish their prayers, which we join with our prayers on Sunday. There is usually a colourful display of the history of the Gumfreston Wells. The weather had been so damp recently, that I am currently making a new one which gives us a chance to add new information. We have no resident priests but are with the Rectorial Parish of Tenbyand fortunately receive encouragement and understanding from our Rector. I would like to mention here the unsung heroine of Gumfreston, Mrs Sheila Askew, whose devotion to the church and wells, hard work, and loving patience with us and the visitors has kept us going.
The History of Gumfreston Wells
The present history is based on a mixture of known and recorded facts, on-going surmise and research by fellow-enthusiasts at St Nicholas’ Church,Pennally, Brother Gildas on Caldey Island.and the interest and advice of David Austin, Head of Archaeology at Lampeter University College. He is in charge of the dig at Carew and as we are in his ‘catchment’ area within the new few years, he has offered to try and uncover the third well.
The three springs rising in such close proximity could have had a strong mystical significance for the early Celts who considered the number three to be connected with divinity. Springs and bodies of water were favourite places for worship, being associated with divine and healing powers.
At the time of the peregrini (‘pilgrims’), the travelling ‘saints’ of Celtic Christianity, a holy man or woman probably used the wells, maybe settling there. They may have been buried there and a small chapel built. The well water could have been consecrated and used in baptism. Gumfreston was then on the river estuary that faced Caldey Island, a spiritual centre and monastery, and on ancient routes that led from the ridgeway and St Florence by water and land. The whole of West Wales was a lively centre of Celtic Christianity, St Teilo being our local saint, born at Pennally and Gumfreston.
There is evidence of relic-keeping in our church and an ambulatory for ‘private processions’ which is most unusual in such a small church. Possibilities are coming to light of monastic settlement between the churches of Gumfreston, Pennally and Manorbier. Certainly in the Celtic Church organisation these churches would have been under the control of a ‘mother’ church, a much larger Christian centre.
When the Normans invaded Wales in the 11th century they changed both social and church structures but the holy sites and practices remained if firmly established. Our present church of St Lawrence would have replaced earlier buildings, and the original saint’s name,but the atmosphere of the holy sanctuary and peace remained for the pilgrims wo are recorded as still coming to the wells for healing of mind and body.
The Holy Wells of Wales (p.90) records visits to Gumfreston Wells on Easter Day to drop bent pins into the water. This was called ‘throwing Lent away’ The last record of this was in the 17th century before the rector of Gumfreston was removed by the Puritan authorities.
In the ‘Age of reason’ the well waters were scientifically analysed, first by Dr Davis, a physician to William IV, who found their medicinal qualities, rich in iron to be ‘as good as the wells of Tunbridge’ Visitors to Tenby Spa would ‘take the waters’ at Gumfreston or pay local children to walk out collect bottled water from the wells. In the same century Dr Golding Bird, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Professor of Therapeutics to Guy’s Hospital’ also reported on the waters (see below)
We intend to have the water analysed ourselves before we recommend it for drinking, although there are locals who drink them regularly . We are told that they make a good companion to whisky! Obviously there seem to be medicinal qualities in the water for our bodies, and there is a local tradition of using, one of the wells for eye ailments; but the account of the well dressing that follows is more concerned with the healing of our ‘souls’ and releasing our intuitive ‘creativity’
Well-dressing at Gumfreston
Why we did it
Gumfreston had been used in recent years as a setting for a floral display during the week of the Tenby Arts Festival. This year (1994), the team that did the display were busy elsewhere. I didn’t want to lose our participation in the Arts festival and was glad of the chance it gave us to be something for ourselves. I offered to do a small historical display on Wels holy wells and a iide yur of Gumfreston church and wells. Well dressing came into my mind as an artistic way of combining flowers and history that certainly attracted the festival committee – who weren’t sure what it was but it sounded different.!
All good practical reasons: but of course in hindsight I realise there was a much deeper person going on in my choice of well-dressing. For a while I had privately included the wells in all our Christian festivals by slipping quietly down to the watedz. Taking small tokens such as flowers, saying brief prayers and blessings, and ‘telling’ the wells what was being celebrated in the church. I wast sure why I was doing this but it felt ‘right’. At this point maybe I should explain that I am a Third Order Francisican and as such can get away with being somewhat ‘odd!’ but nevertheless my mind was needing to understand what was going on with all this intuitive activity. In researching what joly and healing wells had meant to generations before me. And would I hope to generations after me. I found the answers I needed for myself and which I could share with others.
How we did it
In my research, I had read of three instances of well-dressing in Wales (Jones pp 89, 91-2), so I knew it had been done; using garlands of mountain ash in one case (Priest’s well, Narbesh, Glamorgan), and in others at New Year, box (at Llanisen, Glamorgan), and mistletoe (at Diserth, Radnor).
Theoretically, I knew quite a bit about the more formalised art at Derbyshire well-dressing and toyed with the idea of using a similar technique on a small scale.
It was a quiet walk that it all began to take shape in my mind. This was Wales, not Derbyshire. I had been thinking of formal teaching, of constructing to a pre-planned end. Now I realised jay was mot to be the way at all. My whole approach became simpler. Researching for my historical display had made me realise that each well in Wales had its own history, its own associations with people and the uses it had been put to, so surely a well-dressing should reflect that.
I also realised that each well would have it own environment, of structure, flora, etc., and that flora available would vary with the reason of the well dressing. It seemed important to use what was growing around us, and to search for any plants of special significance.
This approach to well-dressing was becoming personal to the people involved, their personalities responding to the ‘personality’ of the wells. It was also going to involve getting in touch with the ‘natural’ around us.
This approach to well-dressing was becoming personal to the people involved, their personalities responding to the ‘personality’ of the wells. It was also going to involve getting in touch with the ‘natural’ around us.
So the Gumfreston workshops on well-dressing became a hands-on experience for those involved. The best place to ‘dress’ seemed to be the stone surrounds of the wells. In preparation I gathered large bunches of wild grass and barley, holly, laurel and other plants from the churchyard. There was an abundance of rosehips and blackberry sprays up the lane. Wild hydrangea and ferns and red sprays of berries, ivy and wild fuchsia. It’s amazing the variety of plant-life around us!
The day before the first workshop I made my own well-dressing so that I could get the feel of it. E could choose whether to work directly onto the wells, or use a container to place on them. I sat the total peace of Gumfreston in the autumn sun and would ferns around the edges of a wire frame I’d put together. A cross of wildflowers formed the centre of ‘dressing’ to account for me the holiness and healing qualities of the wells. Other plants filled the gaps. It’s said that ‘love covers a multiple of sins’: plants certainly cover a multiple of mistakes!
We had small groups, mainly local people, for the actual ;dressing’. Some had expected just to watch the ‘experts’. I had so little to offer them really, just the actual materials and the invitation to ‘respond’ to the wells and use their own creativity. And each person seemed to enjoy it so much! We were so fortunate with the weather that week, the wells were at their most charming. All the ‘dressings’ were different, but by the time we finished there was a sense of personal satisfaction and the relaxation that working intuitively rings. Gumfreston’s Harvest festival was on the following Sunday, so the wells were dressed for that.
We will be well-dressing again at Gumfreston (by popular request) on 15 April 1995, Easter Saturday. Anyone who would like to join in with us will be very welcome. We should be there all afternoon, from midday onwards, as we will have a lot to do in the church as well. In addition, the church and churchyard are always open and visitors are warmly welcomed. Easter Sunday morning service is at 10 am.
I feel that well-dressing is here to stay at Gumfreston. We still have a lot to learn and will always be happy to hear from anyone who has ideas and information to share.
Dr Golding Bird’s Report
“In consequence of the shallowness of the basin, this water is apt to vary in composition after heavy rains, from its undergoing dilution; this however applies nearly exclusively to the solid ingredients as the evolution of carbonic acid gas from the subjacent strata is so considerable that the water is, under all circumstances, saturated with the gas, so as to sparkle vividly in a glass, and undergo violent ebullution when laced on the air-pump and very slightly exhausted.
The water is remarkable for its singular purity, the quantity of the saline ingredients being exceedingly small. An imperial gallon contains but five grains of lime, part of which exists as carbonate, and is held in solution by an excess of carbonic acid. The exceeding minute quantity of sulphuric acid is remarkable, less being present than in the purist river water. The quantity of oxide of iron is about 2.4 grains of iron.
The Gumfreston water is, however, one of the purest hitherto noticed, and owes its medical properties to the iron, and the larges quantity of the carbonic acid it contains. This extreme freedom from saline ingredients, the presence of which constitutes the hardiness of water would render this water of great value to those patients who cannot bear the ordinary chalybeate water.
The Gumfreston water resembles that of Malvern in its purity, and of Tunbridge Wells in the quantity of iron it contains, exceeding all other chalybeate waters in Great Britain in the large quantity of Carbonic acid held in solution.
In cases of chlorosis, and other forms of deficiency of red blood in the system, this water would be invaluable.”
(Quoted in Samuel C. Hall and Anna M. Hall, The Book of South Wales, the Wye, and the Coast, first pub. London 1861 republished EP Pub Ltd 1977. Gumfreston is described pp 442-7, illustration of the well p446)
Near the river at Threshfield is the mysterious Our Lady’s Well of which The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Volume 33 1839 notes:
“Near the Free School is a spring dedicated to the Virgin and Our Lady’s Well whatever powers its waters once possessed have ceased but its sweet pellucid waters are in high repute for culinary purposes there are few inhabitants in Grassington will tolerate any water but that from Well.”
Arthur Millar in Yorkshire Notes and Queries notes that in the early 1900s the local youths used the water:
“being held by Cupid’s Chain seemed to gain fresh inspirations from copious draughts of the cooling waters.”
Val Shepherd in her 2002 Holy Wells of West Yorkshire and the Dales suggests that the well may have been associated with a pilgrim’s house for those travelling to Fountains Abbey:
“The well still flows in the garden of Bridge End Farm. Stonework in the well can clearly be seen. Recently a metal drinking vessel has been put there, attached to a chain, following the past tradition which was a common sight at many wells. Unfortunately, hygiene concerns stopped me from drinking from it.”
Whatever its role with its healing waters it is the association of a supernatural presence which singles out the well Parkingson in his 1888 Yorkshire Legends and Traditions states:
“‘Our Lady Wells,’ that is wells dedicated to the virgin, are numerous in the country. One at Threshfield, near Linton, in Craven, has the attribute of being a place of safe refuge from all supernatural visitants – hobgobins and the like.”
Today the well retains the cup with a rusty chain but I too resisted the water although I was informed by the man who lived in the cottage overlooking it that it was drinkable – the small fishes in it appeared to be enjoying it. He also informed me that there are plans for a sewerage pipe to come close to the site for a new build locally and fears that may affect it. More positively he said that he planned with the people who owned the garden the well was enclosed in to clear it out. As indeed the continuation of the steps and the stone chamber seen in illustrations of the well are currently lost in the detritus The well is still well looked after, benefiting as it does being in someone’s private garden which they graciously give access to. It is found by walking down the lane and just pass the house on the left on the lane down to the primary school of which the well is linked. James Henry Dixon in his 1888 Chronicles and Stories of the Craven Dales and the spirit is associated with the local Grammar school:
“When the school-master finishes his day school, Pam commences his evening school. Once when Daniel Cooper was passing the school at a late hour of night (which was not a very unusual occurrence with him,) he found all the windows lighted up; so he took a peep at what was going on. Now it is only proper to say, that although on that occasion Daniel was in that happy condition when a man sees double, he had still all his senses about him, and could distinguish between a horse and a haystack. Pam was fiddling to a lot of young Pams – giving them a treat as a finale to their scholastic labours. Pam looked like a “ wizened owd man, summat of a monkey sort”— he was covered with “soft downy hair, colour of a mowdwarp, but wiv more blue in it”— he “wor about bouk o three foot.” On this night Pam was seated in the master’s chair, where his head bobbed time to the music. Daniel could not perceive that old Pam had any tail, for, unfortunately, the position of the fiddler was such as precluded an inspection of such an article, even if he had possessed one! The probability, however, is, that Pam is tail-less, because his scholars, who resembled the master in all but their size, had no such quadrupedal adornments. Daniel, unfortunately, attracted notice by sneezing, which caused a break-up of the party.”
This apparently attracted the attention of the supernatural celebrants and Dixon continues:
“In homely phrase he “had tu run for it,” and only escaped by taking refuge in the very middle of “Our Lady’s Well,” which they durst not approach. They, however, waited for Daniel at a respectable distance, and kept him in cold water, till the first cock announced the matin hour, when they fled, vowing that they would punish him severely if he ever again dared to act the part of an eavesdropper.”
This is an unusual claim because more frequently one comes across the presence of a supernatural creature at the well rather than the well being a safe refuge from them.
H.L. Gee’s 1952 Folk Tales of Yorkshire gives another version of the story which is clearly an abbreviated one. It tells how returning late from a public house, a local Threshfield man sees a ghost and “a number of wicked imps or goblins”. Again he was given away by sneezing and had to be kept there until cock crow to be safe. Which sounds like a great excuse for turning back in the morning after a night out!!
But who was this or is this Pam? Some have identified as the Greek deity Pan but a spirit of an old school teacher. Harker, an ex-pupil of the Grammar School in his 1869 Rambles in Upper Wharfedale relates:
“In connection with Threshfield Grammar School there is many a ghost story; the name of the ghost that is said to dwell in it is Old Pam, and there is not a more popular ghost anywhere than he. He is said to frequent one room of the school more than any other portion of it, and for that reason it is called Old Pam’s chamber; into it few of the scholars will dare to enter. Besides being a popular ghost, Old Pam is a merry one ; he has always been fond of fun, and, according to some people, has played many a trick on persons who have passed the school in the night-time. “It is related,” says one (who is a native of this district, and was a schoolboy here), “with the utmost seriousness by eye-witnesses, that on accidentally passing the school at uncanny hours they have heard with fear and trembling the joyous shouts and hearty laughter of Old Pam’s guests as they danced to his spirit-stirring fiddle, and have seen the school lighted up most brilliantly, the glare flashing from the windows illuminating the surrounding objects.” The schoolmasters, it is said, have also been annoyed with the ghost’s jocularity; sometimes in the day strange noises have been heard, as if Old Pam were pacing the upper rooms of the school ; and if a little door, that is in the side of the ceiling, were to partly open, the whole school would be filled with terror, expecting every moment to see the ghost make his appearance. There is an improbable tale which says that a parson once left his sermon behind him in the school, and on coming to fetch it at a late hour on the Saturday night Old Pam caught him, dragged him round the place, soundly cuffed his ears, and then sent him home “….All tattered and torn.” “It is said that this was done out of revenge, for when Pam was in the flesh it is supposed that while in a state of intoxication he was foully murdered by the parson, and his body then buried by him under the hawthorn at the east end of the school.”
Being buried beneath a hawthorn of course is a traditional way to lay a restless spirit presumably originally as a stake through its heart! Perhaps visitors to the wells need not worry about the spirit as Dixon concludes with Old Pam’s lay to rest:
“We conclude our history of Pam with an adventure in which the Rev. Mr. Smith acts a prominent part. Mr. Smith was in the habit of writing his sermons in the school. It is traditionally reported, that one Saturday evening, on visiting the school after dark, in consequence of his M.S. having been left there, he was soundly cuffed by old Pam. The parson, in return for this attack, on his quitting the school on the following afternoon, left, on the master’s desk, a bottle of brandy for Pam’s especial use and benefit. The bait succeeded, and the parson discovered Pam in a state of most unghostly drunkenness. Now was the time for Mr. Smith’s revenge. Pam was fiercely attacked; and, it is said, killed outright. To make sure of his destruction, Mr. Smith is said to have buried Pam in a grave, where he did not receive the rites of the church, he not being one of the baptized brutes! The grave was behind the school. The place is still shewn at a corner of the play-garth over which the lads used to scramble, instead of entering by the gate. It is about two feet square, and a little lower than the adjoining earth.”
“Pam, as this strange tale. goes, was not killed after all. He returned to his old scenes to inflict fresh annoyances on his priestly assailant. Never was the story of a haunted room more accredited than the above adventure of Mr. Smith. Were it necessary, Pam’s doings at the present day could be verified by oaths. He still has his evening school!!”
So watch out around Our Lady’s Well late at night for Old Pam still and his imps!
As St Georg’s Day approaches I thought it would be interesting to cast one’s attention to wells dedicated to the saint. Jeremy Harte in his 2008 English Holy Wells Sourcebook refers to six wells dedicated to St George: Wilton, Cullompton, Hethe, Holsworthy, Kirkwhelpington and Stamford. He does not include Padstow’s St George’s Well because he does not include Cornwall in his survey. Interestingly though he misses a St George’s Well at Minsteracres which means despite a sparse distribution across the country, two exist in Northumberland.
It thus begs two questions. Why does England’s patron saint have so few wells dedicated to them? And how authentic then are the St George’s wells which are known?
One of the most interesting is that at Minsteracres at Barley Hill Northumberland. The Historic record notes simply: Park with gate lodges, water features, a well and a chapel. The well itself lies in a shrubbery enclosed in a small piece of low stone walling on one side rubble built behind and dressed at the front. The spring arises in a circular chamber near the walling in a pavement area which is lower and enclosed. There is often water in the well but no perceivable flow. The brickwork looks Victorian and the site is marked on the first series OS map but significantly perhaps not in italics suggesting no great age.
The estate is mediaeval but it is likely to be two origins to the well. Firstly it could link back to the family who owned the estate in the 1800s, the Silvertop family. They were devout Catholics, who made considerable fortune from coal mining but were persecuted for their faith. George Silvertop is likely to be the first one responsible. He travelled widely and brought back a number of trees and plants from his journeys to beautify the estate. Did he improve a spring and dedicate it? The second likely person is his nephew Henry Charles Englefield, who inherited the estate and adopted the family name and significantly built the mansion’s private chapel which became St Elizabeth’s Catholic parish church in 1854. Did he need a spring for baptism water and liturgical processes – if so why George and not Elizabeth?
The final group of people were those who took over the estate after the second world war: Friar Colum Devine of the Passionist Order, who transformed Minsteracres into a monastery and retreat centre which opened in 1967. However, despite a Catholic order being the most obvious choice for dedication their taking over of the estate is too late as it had already appeared on the OS map by that point. My person guess is the Henry Charles Englefield but I am sure that a deeper examination of the records may reveal something and perhaps explain why this saint was adopted. And was it an earlier holy well forgot and restored or just a simple spring?
So why are St George’s Wells so scarce? One would have thought being England’s patron saint would have been popular enough to have a large number of dedications but that it a way underlines how wells are named and why. Did the cult of St George arrive too late to see a wide spread adoption of his name? Indeed of the 6 wells mentioned by Harte on Wilton’s has any authenticity being recorded as mediaeval. But of course this did stop the wider adoption of St Anne in the 14th century. Of course that in itself may suggest why certain saints had better ‘healing traditions’ and saintly importance in the pantheon of saints. Equally often wells adopted saints names due to an association of the saint with water and healing. St George does not obviously appear to have either.
Originally published in Source New series No3 Spring 1995
I have been fascinated by springs and wells since I was very small, and in recent years I wangled myself an allotment garden with a holy well in an adjoining wood! I live with my wife and children in the centre of Bristol and the allotment is a beautiful escape from the exhaust fumes. Our patch is a few miles out of town near the spot where the River Avon joins the Severn, so the animals my children get to see include not only horses, goats and domestic birds on nearby smallholdings, but estuary birds like heron and curlew. Larger animals like badgers and foxes have their homes in the woods at the bottom of the allotment. The foxes live in the ancient den at the back of the boat cave which contains the Bucklewell or Shirehampton’s Holy well (ST 539766) Britain’s own wild dogs guarding an entrance to the underworld! Last summer the fox cubs were spotted playing ball with the pumpkins growing in our garden. I’ve always dreamed of owning or living near a holy well but never thought it possible I count myself very lucky indeed,
Shirehampton is now a suburb of Bristol but until century it was a small though very busy village. It lies just north of a severe bend in the river Avon called Horseshoe point. This bend, and limited periods of access for large vessels due to the ridiculous tidal range of nearly 40’ eventually led to the decline of Bristol as an international port.
But ironically it was this huge rise and fall of the water in the Severn estuary and her tributaries, especially the spectacular spring tides, that must have partly attracted such a cluster of religious sites associated with the curative powers of the water. From the famous Romano-British temples and cult sites like those of Brean Down and Glastonbury, the area has a rich heritage of healing centres associated with water.
The immediate locality around Bucklewell has been inhabited since the lower Palaeolithic, some 2-300000 years. The people of that warm interglacial period left us their flint tools alongside teeth and bones of the elephants they hunted. These were among the first known people to settle in Europe and the arguments continue as whether they were Homo sapiens or, as seems more likely, Homo eretus, a different species of man and wom -kind.
Two ancient roads lead down to Shirehampton’s old Village Green to either end of a stretch of the River Avon called Hung Road, where the sailing ships were moored and hung by ropes from their masts to the river bank, to avoid topping over at low tide. The two roads that run there are Station (formerly lamplighters) Road and Woodwell Lane. Station road ran to the ferry, until recently the only river crossing for miles, and apparently of considerable antiquity. Woodwell Lane originally led to a small wooded cliff above Horseshoe Point. In this wood is Boat Cave in which lies a spring-fed pool called Bucklewell or Shirehampton Holy well.
The name Bucklewell or ‘Well of the Bowing down’ describes the attitude that every visitor to the spring adopts. Even in these irreligious times we are forced to bow before the holy well. A natural outcrop of conglomerate stone, locally quite rare, forms this roof. In some parts of the country this natural concrete is known as ‘pudding stone’ or ‘breeding stone’ because of the varying coloured pebbles that fall out or are ‘given birth to’ by the ‘mother’ outcrop.
Overlooking the Horseshoe Bend, lying close to an ancient river crossing, and the cave itself being the shape of a horse’s roof or crescent moon, make Bucklewell reminiscent of more famous entrances of the underworld. In Greek mythology the Well of the Muses on Mount Helicon was created by Pegasus stamping his hoof. Also nearer to home, the well of St Milburga at Stoke St Milburga in Shropshire was made when the saint fell out riding and told her horse to stamp the ground. Whereupon a spring of fresh water gushed up, enabling St Milburga to clean the blood from her eyes. Bucklewell shares with St. Milburga’s Well the reputation of waters beneficial for eye complaints.
It has been pointed out many times that folklore of holy wells and springs all over the world contains elements that hint at some recollection of oracular powers used in the service of a female deity; and Bucklewell is no exception. The central theme of its legend is as follows:
“Inside there is a crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.” (Sally Watson Underground Bristol Bristol 1991 p.47)
This is of course, displays a fertility theme: the inauguration and marriage ceremony of a Sun God/King go the female spirit of the land. Thus ceremony was preceded by the sacrifice and later rebirth of the God/King. This is beautifully described in the story of Lleu Skilful Hand in the Mabinogion. The name Bucklewell could incidentally be read as the ‘marriage well’ ‘to talk buckle’ is an old phrase meaning to ‘talk marriage’.
While we are looking at the mythology of damp places it might be worthwhile mentioning that at some time the area around the Bucklewell was planted with hazel trees in such a way that nuts would drop into the pool of the cave. A similar association of hazel nuts and a holy well can be found in the story of Connla’s Well from Ireland., where the hazel tree was poetic inspiration that could be found bearing fruit and flowers simultaneously; the fruit symbolising concentrated knowledge (as in’ in a nutshell’) and the flowers symbolising poetic eloquence. Indeed the most famous pool of poetic inspiration – that of Persephone herself – is described as a ‘hazel shaded’.
The legend of the Bucklewell mentions the ‘crumbling masonry’ that can be seen at the back of the cave. I can find no mention anywhere of the well having ever been dedicated to a Christian saint (although John the Baptist would be my guest, the principle action around Bucklewell occurring at the Midsummer’s Day) so I was doubtful of the interpretations of this ‘masonry’ being the remains of a hermitage. After months spent ruminating on theories of shrines, light boxes, sound boxes or foundations for Romano-british statues. I decided to crawl to the back of the cave and check out the crumbling masonry. Several unfortunate encounters with fox-droppings later, Ii found the remains for a small semi-circular structure, the masonry extends into a large crack in the stone roof. Then feeling a little sacrilegious I rolled my back and shone a torch up this crevice. There it was. No not s silver chalice, or even the remains of a chimney from the goddesses’ eternal flame. No, what the torchlight fell upon was a half brick! Along with this were numerous sandstone blocks held together with a grey mortar having a high content of charcoal pieces. The ‘crumbling masonry’ is of post-16th century date, and (of half brick being reused) is probably of, at most, and 18th century date. It looks to me like some sort of hiding place.
The prospects of a time jump from the poetic myth of prehistory to the activities surrounding a busy 18th century port seemed at first like a bit of a let-down. But it turned out to be an exciting period of the place. The port of Bristol was different from other ports in that not only did it lie miles from the ocean, but right in the city centre. Ships were moored a few feet from a labyrinth of alleys filled with shops and houses where illegal imports could disappear quickly – a nightmare for the Customs and Excise.
By the 1750s the port was seriously overcrowded and various plans for redevelopment were put forward. Merchants must have been sweating under their wigs. There was the ever present fear of valuable cargo, having sailed halfway round the world, only to be wrecked on the mud banks of the River Avon. But there was also the terrifying risk of fire sweeping through the ships, laden with gunpowder, moored cheek by jowl right in the heart of the town. The Bristol Merchant Venturers decided to build a magazine, away from the city, at which all incoming vessels could unload their gunpowder before reaching the port. The Powder House , as it was called, was built just on the seaward side of Horseshoe Point. The course of Woodwell Lane was altered to accommodate the magazine and the wall was bullet enclosing the whole plot of land, The Powder House and stretches of the wall survive to this day. Recently part of it, now incorporated in the garden wall, was rebuilt. Having a good poke about, I found the wall was made from sandstone blocks with occasional reused brick, held together with a grey mortar having a high content of charcoal pieces- identical to the masonry in the cave.
I must have occasionally worried the local neighbourhood watch, picking at garden walls with my biro, but so far I’ve not found mortar with the same make-up anywhere in the old village. It seems that the builders employed by the Bristol Merchant Venturers to construct the Powder House used some materials to make a small structure at the back of the cave. Two further stories appear to solve the mystery of the ‘crumbling masonry ‘Sowing the crop’ was the phrase given to a method of smuggling, and involved letting a rope tied with half a dozen ‘ankers’ over the side of the incoming ship. This was done at a prearranged location on the river. The middlemen or smugglers, came along under the cover of darkness in a small boat and retrieved the ankers with a grappling hook. Then he rowed ashore and usually hid the rum along the river bank where it could be collected later.
In 1798 the local Customs and Excise carried out ‘creeping’ exercise along the Hung road stretch of the river. Customs officers dragged the river from boats while their colleagues searched the riverside for their concealed contraband. On this particular ‘creep’ the officers searching the ‘holes and the gullies found 20 ankers of rum. That is I estimate 150 gallons! There is no record of anyone being persecuted as a result of this haul but it could well have put a small smuggling enterprise out of business.
Several years later – so the story goes – a party of local gentry decided to beat the bounds of Westbury Parish. Bucklewell was one of the boundary markers of the Shirehampton tything of Westbury. These people used to send out a couple of farm workers, or ‘pioneers’ as they were called, ahead of the main party to clear a path and find the boundary markers. On the occasion when the pioneers came to Bucklewell, they found an ‘old boat’ in the cave. This was and still is quite astonishing if one considers that the cave is in a heavily wooded cliff, some 40’ above the river at high tide, and 20’ from the cliff top! Astonishingly enough for Bucklewell to become known as the ‘Boat cave’ throughout the 19th century
Now for fear of the story getting around and upsetting the Bristol Merchant Venturer, I leave the reader to draw his or her conclusions about the crumbling masonry at the back of the Bucklewell or Boat Cave. Maybe the smuggling activities in the area led to another legend about the cave, which says that there was hidden treasure buried in the Bucklewell. Or maybe the treasure is the vision of the future, found in the depths of the pool on Midsummer’s Day. For me, the treasure is the glimpses into the past I have had researching the possible history of the Bucklewell.
If I was to be asked ‘take me’ to a classic holy well, one which had that romantic and mysterious feel and remained in the 21st century still a place of solitude and contemplation, one site I would suggest is St Cuby’s Well at Duloe. Throw in the fact nearby is the presence of an ancient church and a unique quartz stone circle and the site certainly has its attractions to the antiquarian.
In Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall by Mabel Quiller-Couch (1894) tells us:
“In the parish of Duloe, on the road which leads from Sandplace to Duloe Church, at one time stood the consecrated well of St. Cuby… The well of St. Cuby was a spring of water on the left hand side of the above road, which flowed into a circular basin of granite, carved and ornamented round the edge with the figures of dolphins, and on the lower part with the figure of a griffin; it is in shape somewhat like a font, with a drain for the carrying off of the water.”
The well is first mentioned in land documents appearing as La Welle with the valley Kippiscomebe according to Lane-Davies being Cuby’s combe being originally Cub’s combe.
Why was St. Cuby?
St. Cybi (Cuby) founded a monastic settlement within ‘Caer Gybi,’ being born 480 AD at Callington near Plymouth. His father was a Cornish Chieftain and great grandson of Cystennin Gorneu, King Arthur’s grandfather. He was a well connected saint, his mother Gwen, was sister of Non, St. David’s mother. He decided not to follow in his family footsteps and being a chieftain and so became a Christian monk travelling to Gaul establishing religious centres with his disciples. He returned to Cornwall settled at Tregony living in a cell next to a well. Quiller-Couch (1894) notes:
“This saint, who has been called also Keby by some of his biographers, was the son of Solomon, a Christian king or chieftain of Cornwall. According to the Rev. S. Baring-Gould, Solomon was a son of Geraint, and his wife was a sister of St. Non. St.Cuby at an early age gave himself up to learning and religion ; he renounced all claim to his father’s kingdom, to which he undoubtedly had the right, in favour of his brother’s family, and settled at Tregony for a short time, after which he visited Ireland, and finally went to Anglesea, where he died.”
Traditions of the well
According to Helen Fox in her Cornish Saints and holy wells the well’s water cured TB, Scurvy and rheumatism although I am unsure where this piece of folklore is derived from. The most well-known piece is quoted by Quiller-Couch wo states that:
“The well at one time was very much respected, and treated with reverence by the neighbouring people, who believed that some dire misfortune would befall the person who should attempt to remove it. Tradition says that a ruthless fellow once went with a team of oxen for the purpose of removing the basin ; on reaching the spot one of the oxen fell down dead, which so alarmed the man that he desisted from the attempt.”
In Mrs Peel’s Our Cornish Home, it is said that the basin was broken when it was rolled down Kippiscombe by drinken workmen and it came to rest beside a cottage of an old lady who heard the Piskeys laughing over it all night.
Quiller-couch notes that:
“In spite of this tradition, however, the basin has been moved, probably when the new road was cut, and was taken to the bottom of the woods ‘on the Trenant estate ; it is now placed in Trenant Park.”
This story of the well is told in more details in In the Old Cornwall Journal of April 1928 the story is told that so strong was the superstition attached to the basin that when the squire (Wm Peel d 1871) wished to move it into Trenant Park for preservation about 1863 he had to pledge himself firmly to provide the pensions for the families of any who fell dead before the carters would took the stone. Of this font one now must travel to the church being returned in 1959 when it returned to the parish. It is a remarkable relic with a snake, griffin and dolphin on the bowl’s rim. It certainly looks pre-medieval.
Recently as it spreads across Cornwall (and beyond) the well have become a rag well or as it might be called locally clootie well.
The well today
The well is made of granite ashlar with a gabled end and roof constructed of large blocks of granite with a rounded head arched entrance with an ancient Celtic cross above the door. There are two cells the outer one has a stone seat but its a cramped location to wait. The inner well house is built into the bank and has a round-headed arch to the inner well house room which has corbelled walls and a flat stone roof. The well is thought to be 15th century but its present state owes to be restored by a former Rector The Rev. Dr, Barrington Ward around 1822 when the nearby road was built and remains a delightfully well preserved granite well chapel. Despite being close to a road it is a peaceful spot shrouded by bushes and resembles a grotto where within you can be devoid of the world outside as it is dark; very little light penetrates through! The water now seeps from the side and flows into the floor of the second chamber. It is clear and flowing although it had a dead mole in it! Despite this it is a remarkable place.