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Rediscovered/Restored: A holy well fit for a Pope..the Holy Well of Abbott’s Langley

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In Bedmond, a small hamlet associated with the larger Abbotts Langley is famed as the place which gave birth to the only Englishman ever to become Pope, Nicholas Breakspeare later Adrian or Hadrian IV. Local tradition records that he was born in a farmhouse there around 1200, latterly called Breakspear farm. Sadly all possibility of proving the age of the farm through examination of its fabric was lost when thoughtlessly it was demolished in the 1960s. What is less well known is that beside this farm was a Holy Well

The description of the site

Aside from being a water source of the farm, the spring attracted celebratory. Whether this was the result of its association with Adrian IV is unclear. However, probably because of its association with the Pope’s farm, the well is well photographed. In fact it is one of the few holy wells in the county of which anything other than pre-late 20th century images exist. This fact in itself suggests that the site was well thought of a regularly visited by the curious. The site is shown on a postcard dated 1909, which shows the spring issuing from a pipe set into some walling with the wording. Two different magic lantern slides appear to exist, however these show a different arrangement. They do not show the walling but a simple spring. This means either the photos are more recent and the brickwork was demolished or that the walling shown in the postcard, was a tap available at the road, flowing from the other spring head and conduited to it. I originally thought this but superimposing one on another the tree shown in both images suggests we are looking at the same place.

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Traditions associated with the site

There is no evidence of either Adrian IV being treated as a saint nor of course that he even visited the spring, although as he was born in the house he must have done. According to the Rev. Canon Andrews, it was much frequented in the mediaeval period as a place of pilgrimage, and its waters were thought to be curative, particularly for eyes. An account in Scott Hastie’s 1993 Abbotts Langley – A Hertfordshire village records:

“Breakspear farm was demolished in the 1960’s to make way for a small crescent of modern houses, built off the Bedmond Road. Today only a concrete plaque commemorates the site’s significance. Behind the old farmhouse was a well. This was said to possess ‘holy water’ which had special curative properties, particularly for the healing of the eyes. Throughout the centuries the well became a site of regular religious pilgrimage. …”

A site rediscovered.

This account suggests the well is no longer in existence and in my book Holy wells and healing springs of Hertfordshire, I was informed by the Rev. Canon Andrews, the site was lost, presumably it was lost when the farm was demolished in the 1960s. However, I was wrong and below are some photos from the Abbotts Langley Local History Society. The tree is still there lending argument to my previous thought. I plan too soon in this year of seeing the instalment of a new pope to visit this simple spring and think of an older papal person drinking from its water.

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Rediscovered/Restored: Another St. Anne’s Well near Buxton. Was there a Roman water shrine at Brough, Derbyshire?

Whilst researching for the book Holy Wells and Healings Springs of Derbyshire, I came across a reference to a holy well which appears to have been ignored. Much had been written of Bradwell’s well customs and even consideration made for its thermal spring, but this was unrecorded by authors over the years only being noted on the first series OS map. I was eager to see it if it survived and doubted it had considering I had heard nothing of it.

Overlaying the old map for the new OS map I pinpointed the location and went exploring. Taking a few steps off the main road I was pleased to see there was a well approximately where the well was marked on the older map. Also unlike other such forays this was not some boggy weed filled morass but a substantial structure and over the overflowing trough was carved into a stone the name – St. Anne’s Well. However this was a forgotten or at least unknown St Ann Well for it appears to have been completely missed from previous surveys including the most recent Jeremy Harte (2008) of English Holy Wells. However, a stone erected over the well clearly reads: Town Well or St. Anne’s Well. 1859. What was more interesting, furthermore, across the road from the well was a noted Roman settlement, Navio was there a connection?

A forgotten holy well?

The well is quite a substantial structure consisting of two separate chambers. The spring fills at first a five foot, two foot rectangular stone trough enclosed in a small walled enclosure, which presumably was constructed for people. The overflow from this fills the trough beside the wall enclosure and beneath the large stone where the well’s name is carved. The arrangement is not an uncommon one to prevent contaminating domestic and animal supply.

How old is the dedication?

Bar the inscription, there appears to be very little concrete evidence. The most official being its notation as noted in copperplate writing on the first series of the O/S map. This suggests that the site was an antiquity when the map was drawn, however the Victorian love of antiquarianism as a form of vindication it is dubious. Possibly more convincing is are the names of the houses around, both are 1700s in date and are named after the well.

The support for an ancient well.

Yet despite the lack of any concrete written evidence it is possible that this site is a very ancient one associated with the Navio settlement. Let us look at the support for that argument. Firstly, its position. The spring arises on Batham Gate the Roman road to Buxton and a few yards from the Roman settlement. It would indeed seem odd that the Romans did not know it flowing as it does so close.

Significantly perhaps, in Navio an altar was found dedicated to goddess Arnomectis who has been seen as an adopted Celtic Water deity however authorities believe this is related to the river Noe, but why not the spring? The inscription reading:

DEAE ARNOMECTE AEL MOTIO V S L L M

“To the goddess Arnomecte Aelius, willingly, gladly and deservedly fulfils his vow”

It is also probable that it is the same deity, Arnemetia, which was celebrated at Buxton, so perhaps this is a memorial from there but that it does not preclude the deity being celebrated here.

It is worth noting that on the outskirts, Brough does have another noted well which has been considered a thermal spring utilised by the Romans as a bath. It survives as a campsite pond, called Bath Spring, it is more likely that the bath was that constructed in 1830 by a Robert Middleton of Smalldale.

The evidence against

The main evidence against the theory is the lack of note of this. However evidence of absence is not absence of evidence. It may be also questioned why the well was not enclosed within the Navio enclosure. It may be that it formed a separate temple precinct and so would be kept separate. Of course there is always the possibility that some local antiquarian, decide to re-dedicate it. If they did why then not publicise it? Victorian works are full of these sorts of self-supporting arguments on antiquity so why does no one mention it? It is surprisingly absent from the main work on Bradwell – ancient and modern by Seth Evans (1912). This is surprising because the author took care to include notes on the well traditions of the community. Although he does relate that the settlement may take its name from a well at the Roman settlement. Interestingly, it is worth noting that Nottingham’s lost Saint Anne’s Well may have been called Broadwell (Bradwell?) may have been associated with the well, but it would be strangely coincidental even more so considering the well is dedicated to St. Anne (as is Buxton), this view is supported by Clarke and Roberts (1996) but they are unaware of the well!

Yet here it is a great discovery – a St Anne’s Well a few miles from the famous Buxton one – but all but unknown!

 

Down from the Piskies – Pelynt’s Nun’s Well, Cornwall

When I first became enchanted with holy wells in the 1980s it was the old engraving of this well which enchanted me the most but it took a few years to get to see it. The mysterious building overshadowed with by a venerable tree. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells put it succinctly:

“Its position was, until very lately, to be discovered by the oak and bramble which grew upon its roof. It is entered by a doorway with a stone lintel, and overshadowed by an oak. The front of the well is of a pointed form, and has a rude entrance about 4 feet high, and is spanned above by a single flat stone, which leads into a grotto, with an arched roof The walls on the interior are draped with the luxuriant fronds of spleen-wort) hart’s tongue, and a rich undercovering of liverwort. “

A pin well

Hope (1893) states that:

“In the basin of the well may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who have visited it out of curiosity, or to avail themselves of the virtues of its waters. A writer, anxious to know what meaning the peasantry attach to this strange custom, on asking a man at work near the spot, was told that it was done “to get the goodwill of the Piskies,” who after the tribute of a pin not only ceased to mislead them, but rendered fortunate the operations of husbandry.”

When I last visited in the 1990s I could see no pins but the chamber was full of tea candles suggesting regular visitation. The most noticeable feature is its delightfully intricate basin, possibly the most ornate in situ for any British holy well, so much one wonders where it came from. QuillerCouch notes:

At the farther end of the floor is a round granite basin with a deeply moulded brim, ornamented lower and all round its circumference with a series of rings, each enclosing a Greek cross or ball. The water must be supplied from an opening at the back; for none runs into it from the rim, and yet it is always full. If emptied, it soon fills again.”

It may have been from a chapel nearby:

“The well, and a small chapel above it, the remains of which are some indistinct mounds, and a vallum, artificially made, on the north and south sides (occasionally the plough turns some shaped stones and roofing slates), were dedicated to St. Nonnet, or St. Nun, a holy woman said to be the mother of St. David, and the daughter of a Cornish chief. She is also said to have lived and died at Altarnun.”

A warning to the sacrilegious

Perhaps the most fascinating legend associated with the well is about its rather ornate basin. Hope (1893) states that:

“An old farmer (so runs the legend) once set his eyes upon the granite basin and coveted it, for it was no wrong in his eyes to convert the holy font to the base uses of a Pigsty and accordingly he drove his oxen and wain to the gateway above for the purpose of removing it. Taking his beasts to the entrance of the well, he essayed to drag the trough from its ancient bed. For a long time it resisted the efforts of the oxen, but at length they succeeded in starting it, and dragged it slowly up the hillside to where the wain was standing. Here, however, it burst away from the chains which held it, and, rolling back again to the well, made a sharp turn and regained its old positions, where it has remained ever since. Nor will anyone again attempt its removal, seeing that the farmer, who was previously well-to-do in the world, never prospered from that day forward. Some people say, indeed, that retribution overtook him on the spot, the oxen falling dead, and the owner being struck lame and speechless.”

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Hope continues to paint a picture which continues to inflict our holy wells:

“Though the superstitious hinds had spared the well, time and storms of winter had been slowly ruining it. The oak which grew upon its roof had, by its roots, dislodged several stones of the arch, and, swaying about in the wind, had shaken down a large mass of masonry in the interior, and the greater part of the front. On its ruinous condition being made known to the Trelawny family (on whose property it is situated), they ordered the restoration, and the walls were replaced after the original plan.”

And as such it was restored.

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St Nonna’s or Piskie?

Hope (1893) notes that:

“The people of the neighbourhood knew the well by the names St. Ninnie’s, St. Nun’s, and Piskies’ Well. It is probable that the latter is, after all, the older name, and that the guardianship of the spring was usurped at a later period by the saint whose name it occasionally bears. The water was doubtless used for sacramental purposes; yet its mystic properties, if they were ever supposed to be dispensed by the saint, have been again transferred, in the popular belief, to the Piskies.”

Now Piskies are the Cornish version of Pixies and interestingly I noticed the high concentration of midges- were they the Piskies I wonder? Quiller Couch continues:

“Dr. O’Connor tells us that in some parts of Ireland there is a belief that by some of their ceremonies at the patterns, or pilgrimages to wells, the daoini maethe {i.e., fairies) were propitiated. In the basin of St. Nun’s may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who avail themselves of the curative qualities of its water, or consult it for intimations of the future. I was curious to know what meaning the. unlettered peasantry attached to this strange but common custom ; and on asking an old man at work near, was told that it was done to get the good-will of the piskies,’ who after the tribute of a pin ceased to mislead them, gave them good health, and made fortunate the operations of husbandry.— T. Q. C.”

Quiller-Couch’s and my visits 100 years apart

This well when visited in July, 1891, was in a very fair state of preservation, though not now used for any particular purpose. A thorn and a nut tree overshadow it, and ivy creeps from between the masonry. Ferns and mosses grow luxuriantly in the interior, where the trough still stands into which were cast pins in former days ; but the surrounding ground was in such a marshy state to make it impossible to approach near enough to examine any carving which may be on it. A woman, on directing us to the spot, smilingly spoke of having visited the well for the purpose of divination in her younger days ; an old man, who stood by, remarked that no one he had ever heard of knew when or why the well was built there, — but that was very possible, — he had heard that people had attempted to move it, with no success.”

My visit in July 1991 found it an enchanting place, obviously the scale shocked me at first as I expected it to be bigger based on the sketch in Hope. The tree which had been overshadowing it was gone and that lost some of the atmosphere. But it still was an enchanting place, especially creeping inside where that old basin remained and there was a feeling of being with the piskies..

Thanks for Carol Ellis for the 2017 photos!

Rediscovered/Restored: Where is St. Fursey’s holy well of Burgh Castle?

Here is potentially a little known holy well of note. It is absent from Charles Hope’s pioneering 1893 work Legendary Lore of Holy Wells nor did it fall into the net of Jeremy Harte’s 2008 Holy Wells sourcebook! Its exact history and provenance is under question but if genuine it is a survival of that early time of Christianisation in East Anglia. The possible site I rediscovered during research for my forthcoming book on Norfolk holy and healing wells…but as always things are not always as clear cut as that!

One possible site?

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However there is debate whether this or another well called the Roman Well is the site. That itself is of questionable age, Dahl in his 1913, The Roman Camp and the Irish Saint at Burgh Castle notes:

“There is a public path at the foot of ‘The Hanger’ which leads to a small piece of ground, still belonging to the glebe, but which has been thrown open to the public, and which is termed in some of the old maps ‘The Roman Well,’ but this is a mere tradition and cannot be accepted as having any foundation of truth. There is undoubtedly a spring of water here, but it is certainly not Roman.”                                                   

Of this site local tradition states that the well was restored by Canon Venables in 1893 who is said to have discovered a sump hole, lined it with a wall of flints set into a bank and two upright stones recording the date of April 9th 1893 or 1803. Above the well are biblical verses which read:

“The Lord is my shepherd, he leadeth me beside still waters, He restereth my soul”

By 1928 although the site was already overgrown it remained visible until the 1950s but research in the 1980s failed to find any trace.  Scott (1902) appears to suggest that the Roman well at the foot of the cliffs is the said site marked on the 1883 OS. However, this would be at odds with the report by Saul (2007) in their portrait of the village in the 1950s which states that the well is firmly in the churchyard. It is possible that there of course two wells and they have become confused. The question being of course why would Canon Venables restore a well which was not a holy one (but perhaps he did also restore that in the churchyard) and why does Dahl (1913) not mention the churchyard site?

Who was St Fursey? 

St. Fursey was an Irish missionary saint who had built a monastery at Burgh and as far as I am aware this is the only dedication to him in the country.

Another possible site?

The well above appears lost but the churchyard well, and therefore the more likely origin well survives albeit nearly lost under a considerable amount of ivy and surrounded by nettles in a forgotten section of the churchyard is St. Fursey’s Well (TG 476 049). The site is not recorded by any authorities that I can find.

Although dry and looking forlorn, St. Fursey’s Well can be easily found. It is a six foot brick built arch structure, two feet deep and much covered with ivy.  The brick is plastered over although parts of this plaster are crumbling due to the action of the ivy. It resembles many small well chapels covering wells in Cornwall and is not seen elsewhere in the county and probably dates from the 1800s. Hopefully it can be restored with a flow – if there ever was one that is – such is the confusion over this site.

Taken from and adapted from the forthcoming R. B. Parish Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk

 

Ashby de la Zouch’s forgotten Holy Well

An Act for Making and Maintaining a Navigable Canal from the Coventry Canal records

“Use of the said Canal or Works from or out of a certain Spring called the Holywell in the Parish of Ashby de la Zouch or out of the Stream or Brook flowing from the same whereby Town is in Part supplied with Water nor in any way to divert or the Course of the said Spring Stream or Brook but that the same shall and may at all Times hereafter flow as freely fully and beneficially to said Town of Ashby de la Zouch and along the antient Course thereof to Intents and Purposes as heretofore.”

Such an important notice to preserve Ashby de la Zouch’s holy well one would have thought it had been better known perhaps. However, although Ashby-de-la Zouch is famed for its Spa a more ancient spring. These springs of which were on the borders with Derbyshire and now fill ponds at the Conkers activity centre where there is a small information board about it.  The famed portico was destroyed in the early 1970s and the site of the springs is still noted in the Conkers adventure park although there is nothing to see. However, there is something to see at the Holywell at the town.

It first appears in the LRO Description of Ashby De La Zouch in 1735 as Hollywell a name we will come back to. John Nichols (1795–1815) in his work The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester notes is the first to note site stating that:

“Ashby is well watered with springs, by the name of… Holywell”

In the 1831 A descriptive and historical guide to Ashby-de-la-Zouch and the neighbourhood it notes:

“Ashby possesses several fine springs of water they are distinguished as Holy Well Lyon sWell and Perring’s Well”

This spring still arises as John Richardson (1931) the Water supply of Leicestershire calls it as:

“a good spring (30,000 to 35,000 gallons a day, not now used)… half-a-mile NNW of the Church”.

Holy or Hollow?

A lack of tradition, legends, folklore or even properties can be problematic. However what is more problematic is the name Hollywell compared to the geography of the well. Such names can often derive from the Old English word ‘Holh’ for hollow rather than ‘Halig’ for holy! The well not only appears to rise in a small cave but the whole stream flows to the town in a deep hollow! So is it Hollowell? Possibly.

The site today

The site still exists being near Holy Well Farm on the outskirts of the town. The spring arises in a dense thicket at the edge of Holywell Spring Farm. Some years back I was given assistance to examine it, a rather hazardous occupation, as the site is very steep.

Its source is fills a large rectangular pool which is brick and stone lined. Water then flows under a small arch into a much large rectangular pool. The exact source is too overgrown to see clearly, but its water then cascades over the basin to form a small sandy stream. The structure appears to be too ornate to be modern and probably in parts date back to the use of the water in the spa period. Its waters are said to feed two taps in the town: one in the Spa and the other in council grounds. The area around the springhead is soon to be developed for housing so hopefully this ancient water source will survive the change!

Rediscovered/Restored: St. Alban’s Well, Hertfordshire – Britain’s first Christian holy well?

Perhaps Hertfordshire’s most famed well, dedicated to the first British Christian Martyr, and thus called St. Alban’s Well or Holy Well (TL 149 068) and as such one could argue it is the earliest Christian holy well in Britain.

Who was St. Alban?

Gildas and Bede accredit his martyrdom to the ruler Diocletian (c305), later authorities attribute Septimus severnus (c209) or Decieus (c254) to the act. His conversion to Christianity occurred when he sheltered a wanted priest (later St. Amphibalus). The priest taught Alban and baptised him as a Christian. The two exchanged clothes and, allowing the priest to escape, Alban was captured instead. He was tried and sent to be executed. The journey to his execution, now locally commemorated each weekend close to St Alban’s Feast Day, is when the spring arose!

The legend of the spring

It is said that upon climbing the hill to his martyrdom became tired and thirsty. Falling to his knees he prayed to God to quench this thirst and miraculously a spring of fresh water appeared. This is however only one origin for the spring. The other story states that after being taken to the old city of Verulam, he refused to offer pagan sacrifice, and was executed. His severed head rolled down the hill and where it rested a spring burst forth. This is a common holy well motif. After the adoption of the Christian church in the third century the spring gained great notoriety (although it is of course plausible that the spring was a pre-Christian site, gaining greater pilgrimage with Christian doctrine). St. Alban was also adopted, and finally installed in a Shrine in the Abbey. This was restored after the Reformation and is a beautiful example of a Pre-Reformation Shrine.

A spring of Arthurian romance?

This spring was strangely absorbed into Arthurian romance. It has been associated with mythical Romano-Celt ruler Uther Pendragon, father of the also possibly mythical King Arthur. The spring is said to have healed his wounds, and the incident is recorded during the reign of Richard II, by Chronicler Brompton:

“….Uter Pendragon, a British Prince, had fought the Saxons in a great battle at this place, and received a dangerous wound: and lay a long time confined to his bed: and that he was cured at length by resorting to a well or spring not far distant from the city; at that time salubrious; and for that reason, and for the cures thereby performed, esteemed holy; and blessed in a peculiar manner with the flavour of Heaven ..”

The well through the ages

The Benedictine nuns of the nearby nunnery were according to Matthew Paris, said to have dipped their bread in the well, and hence earned it the name of Sopwell. Until the reformation the well rivalled Walsingham in its popularity among the sick and troubled. Even in the 19th century the ‘Holy-well’ was “still held in some estimation, for its purity and salubrious qualities.” It then lay on the lawns of the Duke of Marlborough’s Holywell House, which was latter demolished.

Until the 1980s, the site was marked by a stone on the playing fields of the local Grammar school. However, in the 1980s, the site was at risk from developers, as the school wished to sell off its fields. This precipitated local interest, and a campaign organised by a Mr. Tony Haines, and set out to rediscover the well and ensure that it was preserved. This they finally did, although the site was not officially recognised by the local council, despite it corresponding to ancient maps, local knowledge as well as remains of medieval brickwork. Fortunately, the developer was sympathetic and in a rare example of preservation, restored it. It now stands in a small walled garden. The well was repaired by brickwork, and fitted with a protective grille over it. Interestingly, a combination of wet weather coupled with the water authorities ceasing pumping from the Ver’s source, has meant that the water table has returned and water can be seen in the well.

This restored site can be found by going up Holywell Hill Road, then taking the righthand road, Belmont Hill ( if approaching from Junction one M10 ). Take next right, into new housing estate, then left and the well is found in a small garden on the left.

The well survives, well as long as the housing estate does! It has become the centre of a local religious groups devutions as well!

The mysterious lost well of St Pandonia, Eltisley Huntingdonshire

In the quiet village of Eltisley in the old county of Huntingdonshire, now Cambridgeshire was a uniquely dedicated holy well associated with a saintly shrine. This was St Pandonia’s Well of which Charles Hope in his 1893 notes stood outside the chancel until being filled in the 16th Century by the Reverend Palmer for ‘superstitious purposes’. It is noted:

 “The vicar… Robert Palmer, who was charged before the Consistory court in 1576 with many misdemeanours. Amongst them… that he had broken the stonework round a well in the churchyard to the great danger of children playing in the churchyard. To the latter he replied “that it was a well used for superstitious purposes, therefore he broke it down”

Despite the obvious desecration the Parish church still shares this unusual dedication combined with St. John the Baptist. It is evident from the fact the vicar was charged that the villagers still considered their well important.

Who was St Pandonia?

Pandonia was a local saint but not Huntingdonshire born and bred. It is recorded in the 13th century to c.1250 to St Pandonia or Pandionia;  original name appears to have been O.E Pendwynn. St. Pandonia was a nun at Ely, the daughter of a Scottish Prince who died in 904. When her body was translated into the church in 1344 miracles occurred. Leland, c. 1540 (1906–10) notes:

  “at “Eltesle was sumtyme a nunnery wher Pandonia the Scottish virgine was buried, and there is a well of her name yn the south side of the quire’, and, ‘it appearithe by the legende of S. Pandonia that she was a kynge of Scotts dowghter, and after flienge them that would have deflowrid hir, she cam to a kynns woman of hirs, priorese of a nunrey at Eltesley in Cambridgeshire, 4 myles from Saint Neotes, and aftar dyenge was byried in Eltesley by a well cawled S. Pandonia Welle. She was translatyd into Eltesley Churche anno 1344 as it aperithe by the lessons of hir translation made by one Ser Richarde, parishe priste there”.      

Kelly’s directory (1929) notes:

    “There was formerly a convent of Benedictine nuns here, subsequently removed in the reign of William I. to Hinchinbrooke, in Huntingdonshire. St. Pandionia was the daughter of a Scottish king, who, in her flight from some persons who attempted her chastity, is said to have taken refuge in the nunnery of Eltisley, the prioress of which was her kinswoman; she eventually adopted the religious life, and on account of her piety was canonized; she died, it is said, in the convent, and was buried by a well called St. Pandionia’s Well, whence her body was removed into Eltisley church in the year 1344.”   

In the 1808 Cambridgeshire volume it is recorded the priory was where the rectory was and destroyed at the Conquest. However, another view places it some distance out of the village at Papley Grove, where a modern farm house is to be found.

Any sign of the well?

There is an interesting aspect to the tradition. Why was she buried near the well and not in the church of the Priory she was nunnery? Was if the story above is true still considered an outsider? Was she diseased and those needed to be buried elsewhere? Why bury her near a well? Surely this would both contaminate the grave and the water. How close was it to the church. Hope appears to state it outside the chancel which sounds pretty close to the church and his accounts states that a bricked around well was in the churchyard. If so perhaps some remains of it still exist awaiting to be discovered. But why was she buried near a well? Had she become a hermit there? Is there more to the story – was she buried and a spring arise like nearby St Ive’s Well in the town? The account appear to suggest that it might have arose after her body was transferred to the high altar. A local story states that her spirit appeared to local children revealing the location of the spring; perhaps this was at a time when there was a drought.

Sacred garden pool?

Possible water from the well fills ponds between the large house and church

Interestingly, it is said that the water of the well fills pool in an adjoining property. It is a far distance from the chancel end but not impossible. They are hidden by trees on the picture shown on Google maps. They are not accessible to the public however…hopefully one day they excavate the churchyard and find remains of the well and restore it so far as the village history website (http://www.eltisleyhistorysociety.org.uk/)  suggests it and the priory have yet to be discovered.

 

Ancient and holy wells of Porthcawl, Glamorganshire part two

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In our final post on the noted wells of the area, we cover perhaps the most famous well around the town that of St. John or Sandford’s Well. Despite its fame it is the most unattractive of the town’s surviving sites. Charles Davies describes it as thus:

The well, oval in shape, of 6½ft. and 4½ft. diameters and 13½ft. in depth below the surface, with a covered flight of 20 steps, is about 85 yards south of the Church, and about 500 yards from the shore : its position is marked on a map of Dutch origin of 1646.”

Charles Davies in his 1938 The History of the Ancient church situate at Newton Porthcawl states:

The Holy Well in close proximity to the Parish Church at Newton, and possessing a like Patron, has also a lay name “Sandford Well” – which sheds considerable light on the time of the Church’s original foundation. Now it is Impossible to seriously doubt, when certain external evidences are considered, that Sir Thomas de Sandford had as much to do with the original foundation of the Church as with that of the Well. Dre-Newydd, Nova Villa, New Town, by whichever name be it called, was a dowry on his marriage, a “dot” of a new village, and it is not likely that he confined his legacy to it to the mere well, when we remember its intimate connexion with the Church.”

Who was de Sandford?

It is believed that De Sanford, was a crusading Knight of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, who in the 12th century founded the church being granted land by William Earl of Gloucester between 1147 and 1183.

Rituals at the well

The legend of the well is inscribed on a large plaque by its side as seen below:

A number of traditions are associated with the well. It is reported that May Day or rather one would presume Beltaine bonfires were lit close to the well, although one would have thought Midsummer – or the feast of St John would have been a more obvious time. Those visiting the well would use the water to wish away sins and if water removed from the well was spilt bad luck would ensue

Ebbing and flowing

The well is mainly noted for being an ebbing and flowing well. Author R.D.Blackmore wrote of the well:

“It comes and goes, in a manner, against the coming and going of the sea, which is only half a mile from it: and twice a day it is many feet deep, and again not as many inches. And the water is so crystal clear, that down in the dark it is like a dream. – The children are all a little afraid of it… partly because of its maker’s name… and partly on account of its curious ways and the sand coming out of its “nostrils” when first it begins to flow”.

It is possible that this deep well is connected via fissures in the rock with the sea where the tide would force water up into the well. It is probable that the two were linked and that if there was a time difference, that it is contrary to the tides this could be explained by the time taken for the water to flow through the cracks to the well.

The well today

For such a famed well and especially when compared with the other wells in the area, St John’s Well looks a little forlorn and long overdue a repair. The well consists as described by pastscape as:

“a gated rubble stone entrance doorway to, and side walls of, a long descending flight of stone steps with stone slab roof and limewashed interior. At street level to side right set in a walled recess is a semi circular stone basin with iron pump in wall to rear and stone drainage channel right.”

The pump is dry and it is impossible to access the waters and indeed one cannot see it as the grill is too narrow and the depth too deep. The door is rusty and unsightly as is the attempt to extend the walling to include an electric substation. St John’s Well is long overdue an improvement.

The final site appeared to base its reputation on the above site this being St. John’s Spa. Davies (1938) again records:

“The water discharged on the beach deserves notice. Recent investigation has confirmed the tradition that the waters of this particular issue have extraordinary healing powers over external and internal ulcers, old wounds, rheumatisms, neuritis and various other ailments. Cold and clear as crystal, the scores of analyses that have been made in hospitals and by specialists, throw not the slightest light on the cause of the water’s efficacy. Its temperature is about 51 degrees Fahrenheit at all times of the year, a sensation of intense cold is felt by the hand which, after a deep immersion lasting for about ten minutes, regains its warmth, and, for a considerable length of time after withdrawal, shows a decided redness. Investigation may prove the presence of isotonic properties which may account for the beneficent effect on the many visitants with divers ailments, who drink the water or immerse the affected parts.”

He continued to note that:

“St. John’s Spa is renowned ; countless invalids have benefitted by their visits to “Doctor Dwr” (Doctor Water), who is always at home when the tide is out, and overs free treatment in a surgery which is thoroughly cleansed twice a day. In all probability, the therapeutic value of this water would be unknown in these days, were it not for the chance discovery of Dr. Hartland who has proved, beyond doubts, its curative properties.”

Whatever happened to the latest instalment is unclear but St John’s Well survives albeit massively in need of some TLC!

Rediscovered/Restored: St Peter’s Wells, Peterchurch, Herefordshire

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“The stone head from the mouth of which the main spring flows, pictured in Mrs Leather’s the Folklore of Herefordshire has miraculously survived the tanking of this well for a water supply, although he is now buried almost up to his nose in concrete.”

Jonathan Sant 1994’s Healing wells of Herefordshire

Such was the description that when I was touring the area visiting holy and healing wells in Herefordshire I gave St Peter’s Wells a miss thinking I’d be disappointed. However, the well was a notable one John Littlebury in his 1876, Directory and Gazetteer of Herefordshire notes that:

“The water of these wells was formerly extensively used for the cure of rheumatism and sore eyes.”

Indeed these appear to other springs, and this explains the name, St Peter’s Wells, Ella Leather in her Folklore of Herefordshire notes of these:

“There were formerly three springs here. Two near together, above the large well, were good for eye troubles; into these pins were thrown. They are now closed up.”

Ella Leather continues:

“The water of the larger well flowed through a sculptured head of St Peter into a shallow bathing place made for the use of sufferers from rheumatism. Mr J. Powell, of Peterchurch, told me in 1905, that he could remember this chilly remedy being actually used: it was in his boyhood. The ash tree which formerly stood near the well had been cut down, and still lay above it.”

It is evident from Leather’s photo that the head no longer had a flow of water through it and it appears that the bath was no longer beneath it. I would suggest that the head had not flowed for some time because it is clean and lacking in any moss which would come with constant water. L. Richards in his 1935 Wells and Springs of Herefordshire notes that:

A considerable quantity of water issues from sandstone in the neighbourhood of St. Peter’s Wells above Wellbrook Farm and gives rise to Well Brook—joined by a tributary from a good spring in Bradley’s Wood—which flows under the road at Crossway and so into the River Dore. The spring water is hard, especially that from the ‘ Limestone ‘ which is well displayed in a quarry below Urishay Castle and on analysis by C. C. Duncan, F.I.C., F.C.S., proved to be 96.37 per cent, carbonate of lime.”

This hard water may explain its use for rheumatics perhaps.

Ancient pagan well?

With such a prominent head it is not surprisingly that there has been conjecture over a pagan origin, citing the Celtics fascination with heads, especially in connection with wells It is interesting that an ash tree is mentioned Ash trees were thought be sacred in pagan times and where associated with the legend of Odin’s eye and the well, but of course it is a common tree and it could be a coincidence. Sant (1994) notes:

“An iron cross has been found in the wood above the well, and this may have come from the well where it would have lent a less pagan air to the place.”

Where there was a link is not clear considering it was found in the woods and not at the well

A bath and baptism

Sant (1994) notes that the baths were provided with a:

“ shed for the rheumatic bather’s use.”

And according to George Marshall in 1933–5, ‘Fourth field meeting, 1933’, Tr. of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club 1933–5: xxvi–ix states that:

up to quite recent times, baptisms were performed here, the bath being approached by eight stone steps. Mr Watkins explained that the steps and bath into which they lead was choked to the top with earth and the head was covered with water until recently, when excavations were made and the well renovated.”

Adopted for a water supply

The bath was restored in 1932 according to Richardson 1935 but this was short lived for it was soon adopted as a local water supply for the town

“Village Supply.—This belongs to the ‘ Peterchurch Water Supply Company ‘—a company constituted by an Indenture dated 2nd February, 1921,and consisting of the users of the scheme. There are two separate undertakings: a spring from sandstone collected at outburst into a brick tank above Wellbrook (by the side of the road to Stockley Hill where it is joined by the lane from St Peter’s Wells supplies the lower part of the village….”

The current reservoir was installed here in the 1960s, and its insensitive positioning rendered the ancient stone head redundant as noted by Sant 1994 and shown below.

St Peter’s Well head taken by Jonathan Sant c1994 copyright Sant

The restoration

However in 2015, as part of an infrastructure upgrade, a way was found to direct excess water through the stone head and water once again flowed through its mouth. In periods of very low groundwater levels the flow from the stone head may be reduced to a trickle due to demands from the water supply network.

When I did finally visit the site in 2017 I was delighted indeed to see this head restored to its usage and the well chamber visible, albeit difficult to approach as a result of the fence which understandable is around the site to protect the water supply. It now boasts to be the most notable holy well in the county once again.

In the shadow of the train: St Helen’s Spring, Santon Downham, Norfolk

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Only a few feet from the hurtling sound of the train is a large spring head. This is St. Helen’s Spring or Tevantwell.  (TL 841 874) still exists although as Manning (1993) in there work on Taking the Waters in Norfolk notes the original site may have been displaced by the construction of the railway nearby.  Thomas Martin (1779) in his History of Thetford notes that:

“St Helens was a parish church in the time of the Confessor…It stood on a hill two miles out of the town on the Santon road. At the foot of the hill is a spring commonly called Holywell or Tevant-well, corruptly for St Helen’s-well.”

W. G. Clarke (1925) in Breckland wilds states that:

“It is said that a man who was working in the harvest field suffered from extreme heat and expressed his intention of going to St. Helen’s Well to get some water to drink. His companions endeavoured to dissuade him from drinking icy-cold water in his heated condition, but he was obstinate, went to the spring and drank till he died. His spirit thereupon haunted the pit in which the spring was situated.”

Leigh Hunt (1870) in his The capital of the ancient kingdom of East Anglia reports finding foundations of this building, and these may still be those still exist and are described by Manning (1993). According to Manning (1993):

“six or seven springs emerge in the floor of the quarry… the building of the railway cut through the original St Helen’s Well and the present springs represent a post-railway emergence”.    

She states that there are signs of a structure consisting of a grey brick bridge spanning the conduit arch and two further arches have been infilled at either side of the conduit, but this do not appear to be visible now and perhaps have become overgrown.

The spring does arise from stonework although it is difficult to judge whether these are natural or have had the touch of human hand.

A lost church

The first mention the church is the Domesday Book which notes:

 “one church of St Helen with one ploughland”. 

The next mention is that there was a fair there mentioned in a roll of fair belonging to the Borough of Thetford, this was also recorded in 1347 as a market or fair at Santon. However, by the time of the 1368 Archdeacon’s visitation it was absent from this very comprehensive survey. This suggests that the church was gone by then. Various excavations have revealed the remains of an apsidal church and that it incorporated Roman works into it, mainly tiles in its east end and north wall foundations. But was there a village? It appears not and so you may ask why was it here? The answer is quite clear it was here to capitalise on the spring, but what is surprising is that no adoption is apparent by the church perhaps this indicates that the church had indeed gone by the time of the real adoption of such springs by the church with appropriate masonary…it is difficult to tell.

An ancient site

Examples of Palaeolithic flint tools have been found in the gravels at St Helen’s Pit. As at other sites in the Little Ouse valley such as Broomhill (another Trail site), these are likely to have been incorporated into the gravels after being washed off a land surface where they had been discarded, or having been drawn into them by the churning effects of frost action.

Paleolithic Finds

An oval handaxe in fresh-looking condition, collected by Rev. H. Tyrell Green of Santon Downham. [Photo courtesy Wisbech Museum 1937.17.8.]

Pagan site

What is clear is that this remote site has become a pagan site again, Pagan Federation of Norfolk website records:

​”This is a strangely beautiful spot, which forms a point of connection between the earth and the leaves and the water of the land itself, the scars of quarrying, echoes of ancient Pagan veneration, faint traces of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, the brutal power of Victorian industrialisation and a new, Pagan appreciation of sacredness. “

Adding:

“Although I have never met anyone else down there, it is obvious from the energy and from some of the items one occasionally finds, that various groups and individuals do a lot of magical work there. Wands can sometimes be respectfully cut from one of the Hazels and the water itself is, of course, very powerful and useful in a variety of magical contexts. St. Helen, or Helen of the Roads (also known as Elen of the Ways) is considered by John and Caitlín Matthews to be one of our oldest native deities. Since she is associated with travel, water from her well can be used for magic relating to physical journeys, but also to help with pathworkings and with quests to seek ancient knowledge and wisdom.”

What is interesting is that a hazel tree nearby has become a rag well. Interestingly the Pagan federation add:

“This practice, of tying rags and other offerings to trees at sacred spots, has found its way to us from our more westerly colleagues and is not one which I personally feel particularly comfortable with, mainly because so many people use items made of synthetic materials, which do not rot away like wool or linen, and end up just looking like a lot of litter desecrating the place. It is very rare in Norfolk, though and even at St. Helen’s there are only ever a few of them.)”

Indeed other than St Micheal’s Well in Longstanton outside of Cambridge and Woolpit’s Our Lady have ever had only one! It is possible as there are a number of St. Helen’s Well which are rag wells up north that someone in the know decided to start it off here. Whatever, someone had clearly thought the rag tree was an intrusion for upon a recent visit no rags were apparent being replaced by a bouquet of bright red tulips. It is indeed an unworldly site…climb down to it the trees give an eerie feel to it and even the sound of the train hurtling by cannot break the connection one can get to this peaceful place.