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.
The parish of Easter Coker, near Yeovil, in Somerset, is fortunate to have a wealth of springs and sources. In the 1920s two springs, at Burton in the north of the parish (5332 1384) and in Coker Court Park to the south (5335 1233), met the needs of the majority of homes. There are stories that during the first world war village men patrolled these springs to guard against German spies poisoning the water. A few homes, notably at Foxholes and on Lodge Hill, are still supplied by spring water.
Sadly, some of these springs and streams have been piped underground. At the hamlet of Nash the spring is called Peter’s Hole (5387 1375; can anyone help explain this name?) The stream runs from the source through the now vanished hamlet of Sheepslake and into North Coker Park, a 19th century creation, where the water emerges as an overgrown pond behind iron railings then dips back underground where it used to meet a hydraulic ram that lifted the water up into tanks in the roof of North Coker House.
Going back in time, the Roman villa site at East Coker is situated close to a spring (5472 1393) that rises to the north of Dunnock’s Lane and trickles down to the cottages at Patchlake. A footpath flows this little stream along its course to Paviotts Mill in Coker Moor. Across the moor near Davole Farm (on Private land: 5524 1211) is what appears to be a little dew pond, but may be a spring called the Beauty spring (B.A Hackwell The story of our village 1953 p6.) rising there, close to the road from Sutton Bingham, an ealden herepath or ‘old army road’ according to a 9th century charter.
In the village of East Coker itself the spring in Coker Court Park (see above) runs down from an overgrown reservoir where villagers could once collect water from a pump, and through the broken remains of a stone-edged pond that might once have supplied the oce for an ice house in a field at the other end of the track across the park. The stream then meanders round to west wells where, in the front garden of one of these cottages, there is a medieval stone washing place which can be seen from the road. The stream then runs along the roadside past the Helyar Arms pub, before doubling back and making its way across the moor.
In Coker Moor itself is ne of the most impressive wells in the parish, known as Blackwells (5497 1302), where the rusty-coloured water of this chalybeate spring bubbles to the surface to fill a small stone surrounded pond or drinking place for cattle, built by a local farmer. Blackwells water is said to be good for eyes. It can be approached from the telephone kiosk in North Coker where you go down a rough track called Moor Lane, past the sewage works until you reach a gate to a large field called Moor Field. Walk around the edge of the field in either direction and you will come to Blackwells in the far corner. The farmer allows access to this field and it is a popular place for villagers to walk.
In the far south-western corner of the parish of East Coker is the hamlet of Lyatts where a beautiful spring constantly flows out of a hedge bank (5233 1184) past a few withies and an impromptu pond, before tumbling out and under the road through Lyatts, running downhill towards Hardington in the next parish. Whilst not prepossessing to look at with its yellow plastic pipe, the boundary of the parish of East Coker cuts across to this little spring which must have been important feature in the landscape. The place-name Lyatts is believed to be all that remains of the Saxon hundred of ‘Liet/Licget’ meaning ‘lych-gate’. The spring is easily reached as it lies along a footpath, only a stone’s throw from the gate at Lyatts.
Two springs at Primrose Hill on the western edge of the parish (5292 1280) feed a little stream that runs down to Halves Lane. It is on this hillside, up above Primrose Hill Farm, that the holywell field names occur on a 1819 map of the parish. In amongst these are Bridles mead and Bridles orchard – in 1770 the former is listed as ‘Bridewells mead’. I have heard that earlier in this century there was even a spring rising in the road here. A footpath takes you across the fields, close to these sources, and follows the stream for part of the way downhill to Halves Lane. If the name Bridewells is original (and not, say, the name of the farmer who owned the field), it is interesting to note that in the Middle Ages, Bride or Bridget was a popular saint in Somerset, with a cult centring on Glastonbury; and thus he wells may have been dedicated to her. Or it might be a dim memory of the pagan goddess Briga.
At the foot of Primrose Hill, and a good place to finish this description, is the Holy well itself, which can be found in the hamlet of Holywell, on the boundary between East and West Coker (5295 1325) Here the spring rises to the north side of the Foresters Arms pub, next to the footpath leading across to Burton. Dom Ethelbert Horne visited the well while preparing his book on the holy wells of Somerset, and described it in the following words:
“The well itself is a plentiful spring, the water coming through a pipe and falling between some great stones. These are squared and dressed stones, some of them being large steps, and they may have been part of a building in former times. No tradition, that I could find, existed in the neighbourhood as to why this place is called Holywell, nor were the waters considered ‘good for eyes’. Indeed, when I asked an old lady on the spot, who had come to dip up some of the water if it was good for anything on particular she replied ‘Yes for making tea!’ She added that across the moor was a spring the water for which was ‘good for the eyes’. The directions for finding this well were so vague that I did not make the search.”
(Ethelbert Horne Somerset holy wells, London 1923, p35)
The other well mentioned to Dom Ethelbert by the old lady was the one known as Blackwells. The wells of East Coker are modest ones – both in their scale and their seclusion – but deserve the rediscovery of a visitor’s or a pilgrims’ eye
originally published in Source New Series 3 Spring 1995
In research for my Holy wells and healing springs of Derbyshire I came across the Friday Well at Roston. This certainly a curious possible holy well and may have been a traditional well dressing site. Oddly this is shown in Skyking-Waters Ancient wells of Gloucestershire (1927) showing it in 1887, but discontinued soon after apparently. Frith in his 1900 Highways and byways of Derbyshire usefully gives notes probably just before its demise. He notes:
“There had been a well-dressing, or well-flowering, here the day before, a charming Derbyshire custom which has been revived in many villages of recent years, when the principal wells are dressed with flowers and a simple religious service is held at their side. Here at Roston the school children had walked in procession from Norbury Church, a mile away, with the clergy at their head. Hymns were sung on the way, and again on reaching the well, where the Benediction was pronounced. “
He continues to note that:
“The Roston well — it bears the name of Friday Well— stands in a farm-yard at the back of a little Primitive Methodist Chapel, and I found the entrance decked with branches and boughs of trees, with a rustic arch adorned with cheap flags, large festoons of laburnum and lilac, and a scroll bearing the text, ” O ye wells, Bless ye the LORD, Praise Him and magnify Him for ever.” Over the well itself an elaborate structure had been raised, which had evidently kept the good women of Roston very busy for the previous day or two.”
The author continues to give a very detailed description of how the well-dressing was done:
“A large wooden frame had been made, rounded at the top and divided into separate partitions. In the centre was a representation of Battle Abbey, with the outline of the building picked out in haricot beans. A Union Jack waved above it— the red being supplied by geranium petals, the blue by cornflowers, arid the white by rice. The background was of moss and other green stuff. Devices were formed out of Indian corn, linseed and small fir cones ; daisies in intersecting rings and as borders were a feature of the decoration, and bright colours were obtained from different flower petals. ” Peace unto All ” was the legend at the top of the frame, and at the foot *’ GOD save the King,” while a dove of haricot beans spread benign and sheltering wings over all. The whole was a most creditable display of ingenuity and good taste. The frames are coated over with wet clay into which salt has been kneaded in order to keep it moist and adhesive, and the flowers and other ornaments are then stuck on one by one.”
Such effort and celebration suggested that this would be a significant well to discover whether it still existed and I did wonder whether the lost of the custom was caused by the loss the well.
Origin of the name
Friday Well is an interestingly named site which may owe its name to a Pagan origin linked to the goddess who gave us Friday so to speak. There are a few other such Friday sites but they are not as common as those derived from Thur or Grimr derivations for example. The site may be named after the Norse goddess Freya being derived from Frīgedæg and indeed the place was present at the Domesday book suggesting an older origin in line with Norse settlement perhaps. Was the settlement a localised site of a Freya cult? Skyking-Waters gives a suggestion that the name is from St. Frideswide instead. Alternatively it could be due to Christian observation on Good Friday especially being that it is associated with a Methodist chapel. Was the well dressed on Good Friday. Sadly, I can find no further details or clues.
Finding the well
Roston is indeed a small hamlet and very little appears to have changed over the intervening years. I enquired at the house which was the Primitive Methodist and was greeted with a welcome and an offer to see the site. The well’s fabric indeed still exists but was now dry. I was told that its water emptied into a large stone trough who the owner thought was possibly a tomb suggesting again perhaps an ancient significance was it associated with a local saint from a lost church? Sadly, the water ceased running, as the farm above the well has tapped it.
Most of the Belgian wells (about 300) spring in the countryside; and mainly in the French-speaking region. However towns are not unprovided by them.
So, in order to get a general idea let us be allowed to focus only on some of the them i.e on some of those to which healing power is attributed by tradition. They very often gave birth to cults or rites and generated enthusiastic pilgrimages surviving for centuries, consequently illustrating the depth of popular credulity in the past as at the present time.
If these fontaines merveilleuses are, in most cases, hidden away at the end of paths twisting through fields and woods, they are of easy reach in villages and towns. Occasionally, they may be fed by a hand pump. Sometimes, a chapel enhances the importance of the spot. These are determined by the zone of emergence of the miraculous source, according to the legend or life of the saint to whom it is closely related. Some names occur in the hagiography, whereas other names, taking into account dialectal pronunciations, became quite modified. Shall we dare say that some are simply apocryphal?
As a rule in Belgian villages, wells are situated alongside roads but can easily escape notice. Let us cite a few examples.
A Scots (Irish) Monk, named Monon (ob. circa 636) built a hut in solitude and sielence near the remote fons Nasiana or Nasonoa (now called Nassogne). Later on, Pepin the Short. Charlemagne’s father, who is aid to have caused a source to gush force there, in thankfulness for the kindness of God through Monon’s intercession came back to the lonely placed to richly endow the pious monk’s sanctuary. Nowadays, only an engraved slab modesty commemorates this fruit of a rather queer superstition of two medieval legends. Hence the pretty name of ‘Source de la Pepinette’
Another example is Saint Fredegan’s Well, hidden under the foundation of a house at Mousteir-sur-Sambre. It was supposed to cure children of tuberculosis or to improve their locomotion. They had to drink water from the spring. Some could be washed, dipped or even dressed with wet clothes. This out-of-the way tradition begun ‘a longe tyme ago’.
The most talked-of holy well in Belgium is undoubtedly found in the village of Banneux, near Verviers ie not far from the German border. This is an international centre of pilgrimage, devoted to the virgin after she appeared there in 1933. Thousands of hopeful pilgrims and tired day-trippers come mainly on summer sunny days to visit the chapel and gaze for a while at the neighbouring source topped by Mary’s statue. The water is renowned as miraculous.
At Bouval, horses are blessed, watered and well-groomed every August 24 at St Bartholomew’s Well. At this occasion, a procession takes place in the open country.
Saint Roch is believed to have cured himself of the plague after washing at the source at the village of Harnoncourt, so the legend tells. Ever since, the neighbourhood as always been preserved from epidemics. Once raised to the ground, the saint’s statue which formerly adorned the old washing-place, had been replaced. It has been set above the renovated fountain (1976). The odd thing about the well is that various personifications of the water (such as sprite monsters, undines, water people and cintry-people) are also present in a decorative manner. Pilgrims yearly come on August 15 to drink the water and to pray.
A cube shaped fountain, bearing the name of Saint Lawrence, whose cult is widespread, has been built below the church of Patagne-la-Grande. Its fresh water, people say, is a sovereign for burns, the saint having perished on a gridiron. There as at some other places, wells associate the Christian cult with the realities of peasant life.
Every year, also on August 15, a curious tradition is maintained at Saint Lawrence a village in the Namur district, with a procession and pageant in the saint’s honour. This gives the villages the opportunity for villagers dressed as soldiers to soak their points of their swords of the butts of their rifles into Saint Lawrence’s well water.
In the same province, it is said that a certain Lupicin, having three times driven his stick into the ground at Lustin, sprouted out three sources which fed Saint Lupicin’s Well. On Whit-Monday, pilgrims invoke him for headaches.
Since the eighteenth century, lots of pilgrims – hoping for the best – go to Marcourt (Province of Luxembourg) where Saint Theobald’s well, hidden in a wood, is supposed to be miraculous. After drinking the water, washing and in some cases filling bottles, devout folks stick crosses (made from two small branches of wood) into the ground as votive offerings. Should young girls walk three times in silence round the chapel, they will become engaged within the year.
At Vielsam in the same province, Saint Gengoux, killed by his wife’s sweetheart in the year 760 is paradoxically evoked for a couple’s union. This source is conceived by naïve lovers as the right spot for pilgrimage, not only against rheumatism and eye disorders, but also to plight one’s troth. That sounds silly, doesnt it? A useful wariness should be observed, for everyone knows how dodgy this may sometimes be!
Some of the many lavoirs (public washing places) situated in the southern and eastern parts of Belgium have been connected, too. in the course of time, to a particular cult. For instance, at Laneffe, horses are yearly invited to drink the water which is thought go have a beneficial effect on animals. . Whereas, at Villers-devant-Orval, those who suffer sorrows or finger infections evoke Saint Gengoux’s aid at his washing-place.
Other holy wells can also be seen in more or less extraordinary spots, even near the sad walls of a cemetery (Villers-la-Bonne-Eaux). Several, seated along side houses in picturesque surroundings, often date from Celtic times and are concealed far from indiscrete at Couture-Saint-Germain, on a hidden hillside in the open country and next to a chapel. Slow-growing children are taken there by distressed parents asking for relief with a glimmering of hope in their eyes. The pilgrimage is traditionally linked with various dipping of chemisettes and sick lambs. Three times linens must be dropped into the water, and the chapel passed round many times; and it is piointless to controvert established opinion.
Woods too, especially in the southern part of the Walloon region, including several holy wells. Charming legends are common, but many are no better known then the old story of King Alfred and the cakes is by today’s British computerised undergraduates. Some are not very easy to discover whilst others are found on the outskirts of villages or close by.
The goal of an annual pilgrimage since 1855 (for skin diseases), the small Saint Meen’s Fountain, near Couvin can be encountered at the verge of the wood. It is the only Belgian sanctuary consecrated to this Irish preacher much noted in Brittany (6th cent.)
We cannot forget, of course, to mention the other old fountain of Bellefontaine (Ardennes) designed for the purpose of commemorating Saint Furcy, another Irish priest (7th cent). They say he stayed there after having made a well spring out from his rod. In the past pious pilgrimage were very popular there, but in our hectic days, the dried up source is forlorn and does not attract anybody.
Others too, suffering loneliness and loss of interest, ceased to be hospitable and are no more alas! what used to be sic transit gloria mundo as we all know.
First published in Source Holy Wells Journal New Series No 3 Spring 1995
Many claim to be the oldest holy well but by virtue of its association with the first Christian ministry of the Saxons, St. Augustine’s Well Ebbsfleet is perhaps according to tradition the obvious claimant for the oldest ‘English’ holy well.
However early records are rare and its first reference appears to be on the 1874 OS map and its earliest written account is George Dowker in 1897 article for Archaeologia Cantiana On the landing place of St, Augustine records:
“Formerly Ebbsfleet was supposed to be situated where the farm-house of that name stands, and is so placed in the Ordnance Maps of Thanet; of late the spot has been shifted to near ” The Sportsman,” and by a spring of water called St. Augustine’s “Well, chiefly on the representation of the late Mr. W. R. Bubb, who resided at Minster; he walked with me to the spot where the present memorial cross is erected, and explained his reasons for concluding that the landing must have been there, and not at or near the Ebbsfleet Farm, as usually represented. These reasons were chiefly the presence of a large oak tree that was said to have formerly grown there, and the proximity of the place to Cotting-ton-field, which he thought a corruption of Godman-field.”
Interestingly it almost suggested that it was Bubb who coined the well and it would appear to be a possible invention by revived Catholics. This is supported by Rev Boggis (1907) in A history of St. Augustine’s College Canterbury,, as a Catholic revival:
“The next station is made at St. Augustine’s Well — just to quaff a draft from the spring which he is fabled to have brought bubbling up through the briny sands.”
The account also adds a piece of folklore similar to the tradition that like Becket at Otford he perhaps prayed for water, which is related by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin who states the saint was able to provide water for his thirsty followers by striking the ground with his pastoral staff but this could equally be another site. Iggleseden (1901-1946) Saunters in Kent. He describes:
“..a stagnant pool, the remains of a well, which had the reputation of miraculous healing powers, while the water was also used for baptismal purposes.”
However, Howarth (1938) who notes:
“near which is a well (known locally as St. Augustine’s well). This will continue to delude people into the notion that there is a real foundation for the view.”
Yet, Certainly by Stanley (1956) in The London Season pilgrimage was formalised:
“Near to the fifth green is a little spring of clear water which is known as St. Augustine’s Well, which legend holds appeared miraculously to slake the Saint’s thirst. Every year this site is the scene of the pilgrimage headed by the Warden of St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, who, in his role of Bishop Knight, kneels by the spring to drink the water.”
Why wonder what connection that has with what James Rattue (2003) in his Holy wells of Kent records:
“Apparently local nuns used to clear it out, but this has ceased to happen for almost twenty years.”
I was also informed by some members that this site was where a drunken vicar drowned, but have not substantiated this story.
St Augustine or St Mildred’s Well?
Howarth (1938) does not support the fact that Ebbsfleet was the location where on Whitsun A.D. 597, Augustine baptised heathen Saxons, amongst them, possibly King Ethelbert in the area. However, local lore recognised first a tree and now an ornate carved cross dating from the 1800s which depicts the story however there is a possible another association. James Rattue (pers com) suggests that the well may have originally been dedicated to St. Mildred, daughter of Queen Ermenburga, who was given land at Thanet, by the converted King Egelbert, as an apology for killing her brothers. Here, she founded a monastery, and became the Abbess of Thanet Minster; latter becoming their patron saint.
The view that the well was dedicated to her is based upon local tradition that a stone, located within proximity of the well, bore the footprint of the saint, made miraculously as she set foot on the land at Ebbsfleet, from France. One tradition associated with St. Mildred’s stone is that it could never be removed. Whenever it was it returned to the same position! This is a common folklore belief only spoiled here by the fact that St. Mildred’s stone has not been seen since the 1800s!
The site today
When James Rattue visited he described it as:.
“a pit, now usually dry, but which represents St Augustine’s Well.”
Now on the 17th fairway of St. Augustine’s Golf Course St. Augustine’s Well is a large circular steep sided pool, from which a sluggish stream arises, flowing to the sea. I found it full of water but not very pleasant more recent photos have shown cleaner water.
Bob Trubshaw’s trailblazing 1990 work on the Holy wells of Leicestershire and Rutland was the first time I had heard of this fascinating spring arising beneath the church. He recorded it as follows:
“Where the footpath leaves the churchyard to cross the brook there are five steps down and a spring gushes from a recess in the churchyard wall, draining away into the brook. This is about thirty yards to the east of the chancel. The spring originates under the crypt of the church and piped to the churchyard wall; during the nineteenth century the water was used to power the organ. The crypt was rebuilt in 1848 and now contains the heating boilers etc. There were apparently never any tombs or graves in it.
Where the water issues from the churchyard wall is densely shaded by trees and is muddy underfoot as a result of the water flowing towards Grace Dieu Brook. The water maintains a good flow and is quite cold (about three gallons per minute at 10C on 4th February 1989); it is pleasant tasting.“
But despite Trubshaw’s inclusion is it a holy well?
Well Trubshaw does not explicitly call it a holy well but does its location suggest so? Many holy wells do arise from beneath churches – there are examples across the country but more are not of course. Although it is interesting to note that springs associated with churches would suggest an origin from the earliest days of the church. The wikipedia site for the village notes:
“It is possible that this site was regarded as sacred in pre-Christian times, thereby influencing the choice of location for the church.”
I am not sure who it is specifically regarded by though to be honest! Thomas Charles Potter in his work on 1842 The History of Charnwood Forest: The Villages Of The District includes a drawing of the church with the spring clearly shown but makes no reference to it at all in the text.
How old is the church?
One of the earliest mentions of the place, as Witewic, is in the Domesday Book and the fragments of a pre-Norman cross shaft appear to be found in the wall of the chancel suggesting the site was Christianised at least in the Saxon times. A recent visit I was given access to the crypt to explore whether there was any evidence of a spring. However, nothing could be found and as Trubshaw noted it was probably removed in the Victorian period.
What is in a name?
What is particularly significant is that the church is called John the Baptist. A saint who of course was decapitated. Heads and sacred springs have a considerable connection according to some researchers, Does this indicate a previous association with the spring of a headless saint as can be found in other sites or is it pure coincidence? Is this a further indication of the site being a holy well? Of course there are plenty of St John the Baptist churches without associated springs.
A lost mineral spring?
Interestingly Whitwick had three firms who specialised in mineral waters. Wikipedia notes:
“The largest of these was the firm of Bernard Beckworth on Cademan Street, which was established in 1875 and ran until the 1970s; it is listed in Kelly’s Directories of Leicestershire from 1904 through to 1941 as ‘Beckworth and Co. Ltd, Charnwood Mineral Water Works’.
By 1904, the firm of Stinson Brothers, based on Loughborough Road, had appeared. By 1912, this firm is listed as simply Horace Stinson and it had disappeared from the Whitwick Directories by 1928.
The firm of Richard Massey appears from 1916, listed at 36, Castle Street, Whitwick. Massey’s has disappeared by 1941.
A Stinson Bros codd bottle appeared among lots listed for auction in Barnsley (BBR Auctions) on Saturday 8 January 2006. It was described as a 9 inch tall emerald green glass codd bottle, embossed, ‘STINSON BROS/WHITWICK.’ The guide price was £80 – £100, the relatively high estimate presumably reflecting the rarity of the glass, but the bottle was in fact sold for £515. The bottle was turned up by a plough in a field opposite A.W. Waldrum’s Coal Merchant’s premises on Grace Dieu Road, Whitwick and is the only known example.
There is also known to have existed a ‘Botanical Brewery’, though it is believed that this may have been a part of the Stinson or Massey enterprises, both of which later moved to Hermitage Road. Both firms are listed on Hermitage Road (under Coalville) in a trade directory of 1941. There are also known to have been examples of 19th-century bottles bearing the name of McCarthy and Beckworth, Coalville.”
Does this suggest that the spring itself is a medicinal water? Strangely despite these firms no one appears to have tried it! So there is nothing to suggest that the Whitwick spring is a holy well but as a remarkable survival in the 21st century of a flowing urban spring it is no doubt miraculous!